TRANSFORMERS: HOW THE DEATH OF AN ICON IMMORTALISED A FRANCHISE

TRANSFORMERS: HOW THE DEATH OF AN ICON IMMORTALISED A FRANCHISE

TRANSFORMERS: HOW THE DEATH OF AN ICON IMMORTALISED A FRANCHISE

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Transformers: The Movie, Jeff Galasso looks back at the cultural impact and long-term significance of the animated release.

The world was quite a different place in the mid-1980s. The internet was still in its infancy, movie theatres were not yet saturated by anything resembling cinematic universes, and Hasbro was the toy industry’s newly crowned king - thanks in no small part to the staggering success of its Transformers action figures. 

The popularity of what became known as Transformers’ Generation 1 owed more to marketing genius than creative innovation; so much so that the enduring success of Transformers seems nearly unfathomable from a modern perspective. Nowhere is that more true than when the original animated show made the leap from after-school, television viewing to the big screen in 1986, with a feature-length film aptly titled The Transformers: The Movie. After two cartoon-fuelled years spent idolising the heroic Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, young fans filled cinemas expecting to see him triumph over the dastardly Decepticons in a truly larger-than-life setting. Shockingly, what they got was an emotional (and somewhat controversial) death of the beloved protagonist less than 30 minutes in.

This emotional sucker-punch was primarily a device to introduce new characters, or put more succinctly, new toy lines. Hasbro wasn’t particularly invested in creating a bankable film franchise - they were a toy company after all - so the movie was envisioned as an upscaled marketing tool. The Transformers: The Movie was intended to pave the way for a wave of new, entirely Hasbro-created action figures. Up to that point, the entire existing line had been co-opted from Japanese toy manufacturers for North American distribution. So that classic Optimus Prime action figure was actually just a Hasbro re-branding of Battle Convoy from Takara’s Diaclone toy-line. Not only did these new characters belong fully to Hasbro, but unlike the original toys, which had alternate modes based on real, trademarked vehicles, they bore no resemblance to any other intellectual property.

Hasbro’s decision to kill Optimus in the film and shift focus to newcomers like Hot Rod, Ultra Magnus and Arcee, was met with fierce backlash from fans (even in those pre-internet days, something which now persists online) and resistance from the actual filmmakers themselves. The movie’s screenwriter, Ron Friedman, has long been vocal in his criticism of Hasbro’s determination to write Optimus out of the franchise, but not even he could have foreseen the long-term success for the company.

In retrospect, though, Hasbro’s gamble was what appeared to solidify Optimus Prime and the Transformers brand for decades to come. Had Hasbro played it safe, opting to be more protective of its established characters, it is likely that The Transformers: The Movie would have been dismissed as merely an extended television series episode destined to be quickly forgotten, even by devoted fans. 

Instead of sticking to the formula that had made the animated show such a hit with kids, the decision was made to front-load the film with new characters featuring voice acting from well-established Hollywood talent. Providing the bellowing baritone of the behemoth planet-eater, Unicron, was film titan Orson Welles in his final role. Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy took on vocal duties for Megatron’s re-formatting as Galvatron; Monty Python’s Eric Idle was signed up for Wreck-Gar, and red-hot Brat Pack-er Judd Nelson was brought on to bring Optimus’ replacement, Hot Rod, to life.

This move largely sidelined veteran voice actors who had anchored the series previously, like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, however, that shift proved only temporary, as Welker would take up Galvatron’s voice duties in season three of the show and, due to the seismic backlash to Optimus’ death, Cullen would eventually return to voice Optimus, following the Autobot commander’s resurrection at the end of that same third season. The duo would also both go on to voice most of the iterations of Megatron and Optimus Prime that would come in the years ahead.

Whilst Hasbro’s decision to walk back Optimus’ death in season three could be interpreted as an admission of a mistake, what it successfully accomplished was to further cement him as a generation’s most iconic character. Not only had Optimus Prime been a noble protector of both life on earth and Cybertron, but he sacrificed his life in defending them. If effectively being martyred wasn’t enough to gain iconic pop culture status with an already adoring fan-base, overcoming death itself surely closed the deal.

Despite what was initially branded missteps, it has become increasingly clear that with The Transformers: The Movie, Hasbro, perhaps in contrary to its intentions, created the most significant turning point in the brand. Hasbro proved to millions of impressionable children that, in a sea of disposable cartoons, toys, and books competing for their attention and pocket-money, their figurehead (and by extension, their brand), Optimus Prime was indispensable.

Now, as The Transformers: The Movie celebrates its 35th anniversary, for the millions who first saw it in cinemas or on VHS, Transformers, and its place in our cultural DNA, remains just as invigorating and indispensable in adulthood as it was througout our childhood.