Review by Alec R. Lee
This is what Bay’s Transformers should have been like.
A few weeks back, I made a post basically complaining about anime in general and how I’ve frustratingly never been able to connect with it despite several recent attempts. So, after my string of failures, I decided to turn back to good old American made television. I knew that this would be a hard task, as there are few science fiction animated television series out there that are made for kids but are also developed with adults in mind. Right now, I am unable to think of any others besides the one I’m reviewing (give me hints, please). In a moment of clarity while looking for a new show to watch, it occurred to me that I had overlooked one extremely important franchise that was very popular in America: Transformers. I mean, there are three hit movies out (gross-wise, not reception-wise) and several TV series out that have a huge throng of fans. But where to start? Certainly not at the beginning as it would be too campy for me. None of the 90s or early 00s series as they looked extremely esoteric to me. And not Transformers Animated that came out a few years back, it looked way too childish.
Imagine my fortune when I discovered Transformers Prime. It had a four year run (only ended this summer) which meant not too many episodes, was considered to be a reboot of the franchise, and also won a few Daytime Emmys as well (for a series to do that means that it got a few things right). So, last month, I took a leap of faith and watched the first few episodes. A week later I was done. That good? Oh, you bet.
What I realized while watching Transformers Prime that it actually focuses more on the Transformers instead of the human characters, unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers. This is exactly why people watch Transformers media to begin with as we all want to see robots fighting robots. And Prime delivers in spades. There are at least two major fights in each episode and you never feel overwhelmed as the series manages to balance exposition and action remarkably well. It probably doesn’t hurt to have the writers of the original Transformers movie (which I liked), Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, producing the whole gig. Seriously, there is some major Hollywood talent in this production. To emphasize the dramatic nature of the plot at hand, the producers even roped in composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious series) to record a score with a live orchestra. That’s something that never happens in an animated series, and it even manages to sound better than the dreck Steve Jablonsky composed for all three live action films. The animation for the most part, is very good. The show is produced with CGI and it manages to look rather good for an animated show with a limited budget. There are no extremely stiff animations (even for the robots) and there were a few times where the special effects made me go, “Wow.”
Since this is a reboot (technically), don’t expect this series to rehash the plot of past series, or any of the films for that matter. The basic premise is still very similar to all of them: the Transformers land on Earth after the destruction of their home planet Cybertron and are trying to evade the Decepticons, evil robots under the leadership of Megatron. Opposing the Decepticons are the Autobots, lead by of course, Optimus Prime. Eventually, humans take notice of the alien residents and are eventually shanghaied into working with the Autobots against Megatron and his army of inferior marksmen. The Autobots, over the course of the series, engage in skirmishes with the Decepticons while trying to procure alien artifacts with the intent of rebuilding their home planet. Megatron’s ambitions are the same, but he wishes to rule over both humanity and Transformers alike and is willing to do anything to accomplish his goal. Sounds vaguely similar to the Transformer movies, right? Admittedly, yes. But the series is paced much slower and there is a noticeable reduction in stupid humor that makes the whole journey much more enjoyable. Transformers Prime is also quite dark for a kids series. There are moments where human characters are killed off (one right on screen), and several of the Transformers either suffer injuries that are sometimes accompanied by the release of Energon (liquid energy similar in function to blood for a Transformer). Some of these fights get downright brutal as holes are blasted through characters, a few get decapitated, stabbed, or mutilated in other various ways. But this is allowed as robot destruction has not been effective in scarring children for life, so I guess that it’s all right. But don’t think that this show is all sunshine and butterflies because you’re in for a shock.
Now that I’ve prattled on about the story, how about the characters? Let’s start with the humans, first of all. This is the one part for any Transformers related media that usually fails….hard. All three live action films are notorious for having completely aggravating human characters that are not important and not interesting to the audience. Transformers Prime actually….does a pretty good job with them. Our main human teenager, Jack (voiced by Josh Keaton) is an actually likeable lead. He is smart, empathetic, and actually displays a good deal of common sense. As in, he stops to analyze a situation before he makes any rash decisions. When have you seen that in a human lead? How is that so hard for anime to accomplish, or any other animated show I’ve seen? This character just staggers me at how, for lack of a better word, “human” he is. Another human ally is government agent William Fowler, voiced by Ernie Hudson. (freaking awesome!) This character seems like a hardass initially, but is developed as more comic relief. I ended up really liking the character of Fowler as he made a point of punctuating every sentence with a patriotic interjection, “Not by the stars and stripes on my underwear!” Operating on the more grating side are Jack’s friends, Raf and Miko. Raf is one of those boy genius’ that are capable at interacting with higher mathematics while still in middle school. Funnily, in an unintentional nod to Independence Day, he actually interfaces with alien technology with his laptop and hacks it (but no Jolly Roger). As far as his character is developed, he gets annoying occasionally but is earnest and is also more cautious like Jack in his appraisal of various life-threatening situations. The complete antithesis of this is Miko, a loud foreign exchange student from Japan. (oh no….) Miko has got to be the most annoying character on the show (typical) who exhibits little regard for her safety, choosing to follow the Autobots into war zones in order just snap pictures on her phone of the action. She is a complete loose cannon and it’s quite nice that she is not the main human focused on. I would have liked it if the writers had removed her character entirely, but it’s apparently a rule that every television show has to have at least one annoying character.
Now onto the villains. The big bad here is Megatron, with a triumphant return to form by voice actor Frank Welker. Welker’s portrayal of Megatron differs quite a good deal from the original version and appears to have more characteristics from Hugo Weaving’s character. This Megatron is more bulky and cumbersome, and Welker gives him a deeper, more intimidating voice. The best comparison I can come up with is General Grievous from the 2003 Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoon: fierce and intimidating. Other minor Decepticons make an appearance, more famously Starscream, Megatron’s treacherous second in command, who is voiced by the chameleonic Steve Blum. Soundwave is also a regular on the show, as is Shockwave, who got shafted in the third movie but is allowed to flex his muscles with a character script greater than a single word. For the Firefly fans, Adam Baldwin and Gina Torres both voice Decepticons on the show and do a great job with the material. Prime really spared no expense with its talent for bad guys.
But what we’re all here for are the Autobots. Casual fans would be shocked to know that Peter Cullen did not always voice Opimus Prime as he only appeared in the first series of the show before being unceremoniously killed off. Cullen would later be recast in the role with the 2007 live action movie, but he would not play Optimus Prime in another film medium until Transformers Prime. Cullen plays the character like he was born to do it. Never mind that the character is a bit bland, he’s Optimus freaking Prime. The man’s voice is so epic that it could carry the series on its own, if it came to that. Supporting Optimus include Bumblebee, who retains the characteristic from the live action films as being unable to speak (apparently this trait was never present in any of the other cartoons). Jeffery Combs plays Ratchet, the Autobot medic, and it is tough to see what Combs is doing with the character. It sounds like he’s really trying to be overly dramatic with every line he says and it’s a bit jarring in the beginning. You do get used to it eventually, but could Combs have tried a different approach? Rounding out the supporting cast include veteran voice actors Kevin Michael Richardson, Michael Ironside, and Nolan North as Bulkhead, Iron Magnus, and Smokescreen respectively. However, the best performance on the show has to go to the Autobot Arcee, played by Sumalee Montano, known for playing Nyreen Kandros in Mass Effect 3: Omega, or more recently as Katana from Beware the Batman. Arcee is known as the “token female Autobot” for most Transformer fans, but right away the writers made sure to make her anything but. For starters, they got rid of her usual pink color scheme, making her blue in the show (they even poke fun at this fact), give her a tragic backstory (a GOOD, tragic backstory), and they make her an important character by acting as Jack’s bodyguard, similar to Bumblebee was Shia LaBeouf’s bodyguard in the live action films. Also, she’s exceptionally badass in many of the fights (twin blasters FTW) and also the fact that she moonlights as a superbike. Now, who wouldn’t want a Ducati for a guardian? Am I right? I love the idea of badass female warriors as they break past gender stereotypes, are usually well characterized, and given the proper development, have the potential to be the best characters in their respective universes. Arcee certainly fits the bill as the best character on Transformers Prime and the episodes centered around her are highlights of the show. Strike a pose!
Broad strokes out of the way, this was a great series. It may have gotten a little muddled at the end but it did keep my interest all throughout. With its great cast and great production, I hope that any new Transformer media uses this as a benchmark on how to make a good series or film (Michael Bay, number 4 better be ******* good, I swear to–). If you were disappointed by the Transformer films because you wanted better characterization, check this out. If you’ve been constantly disappointed with anime for its lack of well edited fight scenes and for its lame character portrayals, also look into this. This show proved that you can have a mecha series and have it be entertaining and not stupid, which should be a good reason for anyone to watch this.
Final Score: 87/100
(knocked off 3 points for Miko’s character)