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‘Transformers Limited Edition 6-Movie Collection 4K Blu-ray’ (review)

Like most now-adult Generation X males, I woke up every Saturday morning in the early 1980’s eager to lose myself in the golden age of animated TV shows, with a bowl of Cocoa Krispies in hand. G.I. Joe, Thundercats, He-Man, Starblazers, to name a few, and of course, Transformers.

A classic story of good vs evil. Autobots vs Decepticons.

Visitors from another world hiding among us in plain sight. The animated series was specifically created to promote a line of toy cars and jets that “transformed” into robots, imported to the United States from Japan’s Takara toys by Hasbro Toys. The concept of sentient robots who lost their home world that could be just about any object around me sparked my imagination.

For all I knew, our family car could have been an Autobot.

Well, it was a Buick, so maybe not.

There was a lot to love when the first live action Transformers film was released in 2007.

The film focused on Sam Witwicky, the teen-aged human protagonist from our beloved animated series. Autobot hero Bumblebee, a yellow Chevy Camaro when disguised, was robbed of his voice, setting up a mystery and ingeniously creating a way for two species to organically come to trust one another. Original big-rig Autobot leader Optimus Prime voice performer Peter Cullen was there transporting me right back to my adolescent Saturday mornings.

Yet, something was missing from the end product.

Heart.

The script was technically perfect. But, technically perfect to the point of being somewhat joyless. Combined with a kinetic filmmaking style; over-the-top action sequences, relentless editing and break-neck pacing, Transformers was exhausting to watch. The film emphasized spectacle over story.

Which is a shame because the DNA of the franchise holds the potential to be something more.

The series evolved delving deeper into Transformers lore from the various animated series, comic books and Hasbro toy line and integrated our robotic heroes and villains with events form human history. 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen involves ancient glyphs and the construction of the pyramids of Giza and 2011’s Dark of the Moon ties into the Apollo 11 moon landing. Sam grows up, goes to college and lands a job, even becoming estranged with his otherworldly friends.

Great stuff on paper, but the 2007-08 writer’s strike put the newly launched film franchise on a downwards trajectory.

Revenge of the Fallen was universally panned despite outgrossing its predecessor. Quite bluntly, it was a mess with its over the top visual effects and hard to follow story. The James Bond franchise absorbed a similar hit the previous year with Daniel Craig’s second outing as the dashing British spy in Quantum of Solace. Both direct casualties of the writer’s strike.

The result was less enthusiasm for Dark of the Moon, which was a much better film comparatively and appeared to be the final installment of the series with the final defeat of the evil Decepticons and death of Optimus Prime. A fitting end to a trilogy.

2014’s Age of Extinction was a soft reboot for the series replacing Shia LeBeouf’s Sam with Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager. Even though Cade was an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a great story trope, the loss of the coming of age focus felt like a determent to the series.

Fans undoubtedly appreciated delving deeper into Transformers lore with the introduction of big baddie Galvatron, the reincarnated Decepticon leader Megatron. Turning our heroes into outcasts also brings a gravitas to the storyline that resonates.

However, even Mark Wahlberg couldn’t save the series from declining interest.

The Last Knight, released in 2017, finally gives fans, including myself, what we’ve been waiting for; Cybertron, the Transformers home planet, at least what’s left of it. Optimus Prime’s focus in finding his home with the mission to save his Autobot and human friends alike was a fantastic storyline.

Ultimately fans were growing tired of the rinse and repeat in-your-face storytelling, however. Each film got bigger and louder, never seeming to find a balance between entertainment for entertainment’s sake and honest to goodness storytelling.

At least until Bumblebee released in 2018.

With Bumblebee, the cinematic Transformers universe found its heart. A prequel to the 2007 film, Bumblebee was smaller, more intimate in feel. But, the sense of scope of the Transformers universe and what was at stake between the two species and planet Earth was still there.

This felt like a film written by a true Transformers fan. Whereas the first Transformers promised to be a story about a boy and his car, Bumblebee delivered on that premise, except this time, it’s a story about girl and her car.

At its core, it’s a movie about found family. A foundation we can all relate to.

Everything that took me out of the previous Transformers films was rectified with Bumblebee. The action sequences were notably less chaotic, more graceful and easy to take in and the Transformers themselves felt cleaner, not so overly complex in design that it was hard to tell which classic characters they were supposed to be. Even Hasbro toys had had a hard time trying to engineer translating the prior complex cinematic iterations into affordable merchandise, which was half the point of making the films!

In its most important departure from its predecessors, Bumblebee took several beats to just let us enjoy the growing relationship between Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld, and Bumblebee, now in his original toy form, a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Bumblebee awkwardly exploring Charlie’s house only to wreak havoc because of his large size is a standout. It’s a story beat that’s been done a million times before, but it still works because of the Bumblebee’s charmingly curious nature.

If I’m being honest though, the opening sequence set on Cybertron, geeked me out the most and was fan service at its best. All the original 80’s generation one characters were there: Soundwave, Wheeljack, Starscream, Brawn, Shockwave and more. It’s the live action scene I’ve been waiting to see my entire life.

Suffice to say, when it comes down to it, Bumblebee resonates with me more-so than what came before because of the story. It’s so good that I want to, I got the urge and give it another watch. That’s the hallmark of a great film. Too bad this one came so late in the franchise after interest in the films waned.

The Transformers franchise is a product of the 80’s. An age of filmmaking that spoke to a generation without speaking down to them. Coming of age stories that captured that restless spirit and craving for adventure that only the adolescent mind can imagine. Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Explorers, Back to the Future. Films the likes of which will never be made again. All sincere, never pulling any punches.

The Transformers live action films are undoubtedly a product of modern times and the filmmakers chose a tone to appeal to today’s audience. The consequence is that the themes that made the original Transformers stories work, such as right vs wrong and honor, classic Joseph Campbell themes that worked for millennia, were forgotten in favor of trying to be trendy.

Extras in this release include a digital copy of each film plus commentaries, featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and more.

With the newly released installment of the franchise, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, based off of the Beast Wars animated series, a new set of filmmakers take the reins. I have mixed feelings about the trailer. Going back to the boy and his car theme is a winner and Anthony Ramos feels perfect for an everyday kid being called to greatness. However, characterizing the Autobots as “hip” will undoubtedly date the film.

But, we’ll see. I’m forced to admit that the nerd side of my brain will always give Optimus Prime and his band of brothers the benefit of the doubt.

With the franchise emphasizing spectacle over character, Transformers missed an opportunity to be something special. Well, special for being a movie about transforming robots.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Ian Bryce, Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto,
Mark Vahradian, Lorenzo di Bonaventura

Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, Ehren Kruger,
Ken Nolan, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway, Christina Hudson

Directed by Michael Bay, Hudson Knight
Starring Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Megan Fox, Nicola Peltz,
Glenn Morshower, Mark Wahlberg, Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Hugo Weving, Peter Cullen

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