In 1986, Optimus Prime died. And I cried.
Not big, wracking sobs or anything, mind you. But it’s entirely possible a single tear rolled down my cheek. I feel comfortable admitting that in a public forum like this because I’m reasonably certain I wasn’t the only one who had the exact same reaction when they watched 1986′s The Transformers: The Movie, the first feature film based on Hasbro’s Robots in Disguise. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary for the venerable brand, which, in defiance of most kids’ limited attention spans, has become a multi-generational favorite that’s found lasting success not only in toy aisles, but also on television and the silver screen (as borne out by this week’s release of Transformers: Age of Extinction).
However, anyone seeking a Philosopher’s Stone for the secret of that longevity need look no further than the animated film, when the Transformers became epic, impactful, and important. First, some context: By 1986, the first generation Transfomers TV series had enjoyed two very successful seasons as part of the syndicated TV landscape. The primordial struggle between the valiant Autobots and wicked Decepticons was a potent mix for the brand’s target demo, which Hasbro duly parlayed to regularly introduce new characters (and toys) over those sixty-five episodes. It was this art/commerce balancing act that ultimately led Hasbro to begin development on a theatrical offering before the show’s second season even started, in hopes of leveraging the big screen cred to launch yet another wave of action figures.
Thus were the marching orders laid out to the writing team behind the weekday animated ‘toon: Go bigger, go bolder, and above all, go newer. And if that meant the majority of characters kiddies had grown fond of comfortable with over the past few years were on the chopping block, so be it. After all, they were only machines anyway, right? While the film, scripted by Ron Friedman and directed by Nelson Shin, still has the feuding robot factions, led by the noble Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and the vile Megatron (Frank Welker), locked in mortal combat, it uproots the setting from the then-present day of 1986 and shifts us twenty years ahead to the far-flung future of 2006 (the world of tomorrow!).
As it turns out, this narrative feint by the filmmakers not only allows for twenty years of implied history to get tacked onto the two that audiences had experienced, it also expanded the palette of the conflict beyond just Earth and the Transformers’ homeworld of Cybertron. It also let them have an entire ensemble of new robots already in place without the need to devote any of that precious-as-Energon ninety minute runtime to lengthy origins, backstories, etc. What this in turn allowed for was a passing-of-the-torch story, something driven home as we watch loyal Autobot soldiers Brawn, Ratchet, Prowl, and, most painfully, Ironhide, dispatched with machine-like efficiency within the first ten minutes.
Bear in mind, kids were likely seeing this even as reruns of the show continued to play every weekday afternoon. This was harrowing, unprecedented stuff for a genre where peril was never permanent and escape from “certain death” was always just one commercial break away. This opening sequence did the job of duly resetting our compasses to the new reality of this cinematic offering: nothing was sacred, no one was safe. Of course, the legion of Autobots who get iced in the early goings was nothing compared to what was to come, when Autobot leader Optimus Prime succumbs to his injuries following a gear-grinding battle with arch-foe Megatron:
And just like that, less than half-an-hour in, Optimus Prime, the de facto face of the franchise was gone. If you were around at the time, this was deeply, deeply traumatic stuff. Like, “losing your dad” traumatic. There are plenty of urban legends out there about kids supposedly being so traumatized that they locked themselves into their rooms, and while these are probably just anecdotal, they do point out the key role that mythologies play in our formative years. As writer Friedman, who had opposed axing Prime, said in a recent interview, “Optimus Prime was the heartbeat of the Autobots. The strong and fatherly presence that made sure everybody else behaves and tries to live up to his example.”
Losing Prime was painful, as it should have been. Though this move may have been ill-advised from a child psychology perspective, it was an absolute masterstroke from a storytelling perspective. Far from being merely shock for shock’s sake, it served the important purpose (beyond the stated goal of phasing out the old toys and getting the new year’s line front-and-center) of fitting the film into a “Hero’s Journey” format that would have been impossible with Optimus at its center (we’d already seen his journey via flashback on the show), but is entirely appropriate with new lead Hot Rod (voiced by Judd Nelson, whose presence in the cast was actually a selling point back then).
While the film’s story has our heroes (including next gen Autobots Ultra Magnus, Springer, Kup, and girl Transformer Arcee) trying to defeat planet-eating planet-bot Unicron (Orson Welles, in one of his final roles) before he devours Cybertron, the actual film plots Hot Rod’s journey from callow youth to Autobot leader, following a well-trod trajectory that would make Joseph Campbell proud. As such, there’s a bigness, an epic-ness to the proceedings that simply wouldn’t have worked otherwise. While the loss of Prime is indeed tragic in the context of the story, it also lends the necessary amount of importance to the film’s key climactic moment, when Hot Rod seizes the Autobot Matrix of Leadership and assumes his new role as Rodimus Prime.
(By the way, that’s Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, the rebooted configuration of Megatron, and even as a kid I knew that having him in the cast made this a big deal.)
A key point worth making here is that, despite the ballyhoo surrounding its release, the animated movie sputtered out theatrically without even making back its $6 million budget. Nonetheless, that short-term financial loss allowed for gain vis-a-vis the Transformers’ longterm viability. The Movie found an extended shelf-life via home video, and was crucial in extending the brand’s expiration date far, far into the future, where it would otherwise have likely faded away after a few years. The TV show continued on for another season-and-change (even bringing back Optimus Prime before too long), but nonetheless its trajectory — and that of the entire franchise – had fundamentally changed.
The Transformers: The Movie took the framework that the TV series had so diligently built up over the preceding two seasons, along with the emotional weight the audience had invested, and repurposed the sweep and scope of the property that’s paying dividends right up to this Friday’s release of the fourth live action. Every iteration that’s come since has relied on the rich storytelling vein it unearthed. However, to understand the exact moment this franchise expanded its scope beyond the straitjacketed confines of 1980s kidvid into something more than meets the eye, one need look no further than the ’86 animated flick, when Optimus Prime died so The Transformers could live.