If you’ve become skeptical about whether Transformers can still be really good, it’s understandable. The series has had a huge set of snarled and fragmented continuities in both animation and comics over the last 20 years. It’s understandable if some fans feel like the franchise is hopelessly lost, that it’s forgotten its heart, its spark, the core of what made it so right in the first place.
Over the last ten years we’ve seen monumental growth in American animated series on all fronts. Writing, staging, direction and voice acting have all matured exponentially, encouraged by the WB, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, all offering a wide range of solid creator-driven series since the early 90’s. But this explosion of artistic innovation largely bypassed the Transformers franchise, which for too many years was only concerned with selling the newest line of figures.
That’s not to say every Transformers series has been bad. The evolution of Transformers has basically been a slow upward climb with a lot of missteps and backsliding along the way.
Beast Wars was the series that changed everything. It offered incredibly strong characterizations and clever plotting even as it divided the fan base by changing the primary characters from vehicle-based robots to animal-based robots. Beast Machines, its successor series, took a lot of storytelling risks, but ultimately was perceived as taking the Transformers so far from their source, from what fans wanted to see, that it just didn’t work. Armada definitely had its moments, mostly in the way that it revived Starscream as a breakout character. Then Transformers: Animated went even further, returning the franchise back to its basic core: Autobots versus Decepticons, epic space battles, robots disguised as vehicles hiding on Earth in plain sight.
And then there were the movies. Whether you loved or hated Michael Bay’s two films, they brought an unprecedented level of public attention to the franchise. It’s very likely their monstrous financial success was what made it possible for Transformers Prime to exist at all.
Where Prime differs from all previous series is in direction, dialogue and subtlety. The show isn’t afraid to take risks. The biggest risk it takes is in trusting the audience. Its little moments- a breath, a silent tilt of the head, a knowing glance- are given center stage in creating Prime’s story. What’s left unsaid, for the first time, is as important as what’s said.
The staff has said they approached creating the first mini-series as if they were movies, and that mentality shows through in every shot. Great care is taken to make the shots feel like live-action compositions with a wide range of camera angles and motions. It uses film language rather than flat 3/4s and 1/2s and side scrolling views, and takes full advantage of the opportunities 3D modeling represent. But the technical work would be meaningless without direction. Prime’s shots are carefully composed. Characters communicate physically as well as verbally; human Jack strokes transformed Arcee’s spine and we feel his longing for the things he thinks he can never have.
The writing is crisp, too. Every line spoken is important; there’s no time for drawn out speeches and monologues.
The Autobots are outnumbered, scattered, on the run. Only 5 remain on Earth, trapped by inadequate technology and threatened by useless human bureaucracy. For three years they’ve quietly haunted the roads of Earth, dogged by a liaison to the U.S. government, a rather brusque character named Fowler, voiced by Ernie Hudson. The Decepticons are a palpable threat: real menaces, feral under Starscream’s temporary leadership, willing to stalk, hunt and kill. Megatron has been wandering space for three years, presumably to find and rebuild the Decepticon army, but has made a more intriguing discovery, instead bringing back to earth a fragment of something legendary- the blood of Unicron, capable of reviving the dead.
Three kids get sucked into the fight: Jack, a latchkey kid, Raf, a pintsize hacker, and Miko, a Japanese exchange student. The kids are all right; of the three, Raf is actually the most tactically useful, aiding the Autobots with his laptop while Jack forms an immediate emotional connection to Arcee. Miko has yet to earn her keep.
Optimus remains as expected: cautious and calm and wise. He’s not the hotblooded space-axe wielder from TF:Animated; he and Megatron are old in this universe, maybe even the oldest surviving Transformers now. An undercurrent of respect and regret underlies their interactions – in Prime, they were once allies and even friends. Peter Cullen continues to portray the character with Voice of God authority; every line is effused with the depth of Prime’s battle-worn wisdom. The only downside is that there’s no real surprise to the character. Because he’s Optimus Prime, there’s nowhere left for him to go.
Legendary voice actor and fan favorite Frank Welker returns as Megatron. Welker never gets as shrieky or shrill as he did for Galvatron. Instead, his Megatron is played low and cool, almost serene in his drive to power. The old sniping between him and Starscream is present, but now played more subtly. The show also exploits some of the energy between Welker and Cullen, who have been close friends in real life for many years now.
Steve Blum is Starscream, straddling the line between snide and toadying without ever crossing too far to either side and really stepping up into what a second-in-command should be while still maintaining his own agenda. He doesn’t try to emulate the irreplaceable Chris Latta, who still remains the character’s defining voice, but rather brings a silky, sophisticated quality to the role.
Sumalee Montano’s Arcee is the second-in-command for the Autobot side. Her character is clearly the breakaway role of this series, and the scripts give her a lot of heavy lifting to do emotionally and in combat. She comes off as maternal and ferocious without being grating or brittle. It’s refreshing to see a female character given such high prominence in an Autobot cast, which has traditionally skewed very top-heavy with male characters, and her relationship with Jack is going to be interesting to watch when the series picks up full time in February.
If Prime gets just a little predictable toward the end it’s still greatly satisfying. If it leaves some plot points unfinished and sidelines some characters that still need to be deepened, that’s what the series in February is for. It honors the original and all that’s come since then, and everything about it calls back to that glorious time when many of us sat breathlessly awaiting each new chapter of “More Than Meets the Eye”. It brings back that sense of something special, something amazing, something worth breaking appointments and rushing to the screen for.
It feels so good to see the series grown up at last. Some of us have waited a very long time for this.
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