Transformers: Animated Premiere Episode Review, Part 1

{mosimage} The Allspark recently had the opportunity to view the premiere movie, as well as first episode of Transformers: Animated, scheduled to begin as a 90-minute primetime special on December 26th, with the premiere episode airing January 5, 2008.  Click "Read More" to view our complete (and very wordy) review (WITH SPOILERS!) of the movie, and starting next Wednesday, you can discuss the premiere in our brand new Transformers: Animated forum!  Our thanks go to the fine folks at Cartoon Network for the opportunity to review this brand new chapter in the Transformers saga.

The episode begins with a series of G1 clips: the Cybertron Guardian Robots, a group of generic Autobot warriors, War Dawn's Dion.  A brief history of Cybertron is recounted, and we pan out to see a young Optimus Prime viewing a data track of the Great Wars.  We're then introduced to Ratchet, himself a grizzled and cynical veteran of the Great Wars, as well as the rest of Optimus Prime's crew of heroic Autobots.  Wait… they're not heroic Autobot warriors?  In fact, they're a spacebridge repair crew, sent to the backwater recesses of the galaxy to fix up broken interdimensional transports.  And that's their lot in life: it's what they do, and they're happy to do it.  Optimus Prime reveals himself to be a former Autobot Academy bot, to Ratchet's surprise. 

Always bitter, Ratchet speaks his mind regarding bots from the Academy, as the other Autobots work on their assignment.  The peaceful workday is interrupted when their spacebridge suddenly activates itself, throwing the worksite into turmoil.  As the Autobots work to right themselves on the asteroid, a bright glow engulfs the area.  Ratchet pleads with Optimus Prime not to uncover the source of the blue light, but Prime feels he must, and drives his axe into the barren asteroidal rock, revealing a strange orange cube.

Ratchet then informs Prime of the nature of said cube: the long-lost Allspark, one of the greatest powers in the universe, the wellspring of all Cybertronian life.  But the medic's tale is punctuated with a warning: there's a reason the Allspark has gone missing.  It's the reason the Great Wars were fought in the first place: the Allspark must not fall into the hands of the Decepticons, or all will be lost.

But Prime is undeterred: the discovery of the Allspark is a momentous occurence, and Optimus immediately contacts home base on Cybertron.  His communique is greeted by Sentinel Prime, who addresses Optimus Prime in a familiar, if condescending, tone.  Sentinel patches Optimus in with Supreme Commander Ultra Magnus, the highest Autobot authority on Cybertron.  Prime informs Magnus of his discovery, and Magnus has one response: stay put.  Don't be a hero.  There are Decepticons on the way, but Magnus is dispatching his best bots to counter the threat.

They don't arrive fast enough, and the Decepticon flagship, the Nemesis, under the command of Megatron himself, attacks.  As Megatron prepares to wrest the Allspark away from Optimus Prime and his crew, his second-in-command, Starscream, plants an explosive device on the Decepticon warlord, causing Megatron to explode, taking the Autobot ship with him.  The Autobots are sent spiralling out of control into the inky blackness of space, while an unmanned Decepticon flagship plummets into a nearby star, all of its crew save the self-styled new Decepticon Emperor Starscream having ejected in stasis pods.  Through the power of the Allspark, the Autobots are then catapulted through the next closest spacebridge terminal, disappearing into the unknown regions of the cosmos.

As the Autobot vessel drifts, a badly damaged Megatron comes back online and wreaks havoc within the ship, until Optimus Prime veers the spacecraft into the atmosphere of a nearby planet.  Tossed out of an airlock, Megatron crumbles as he falls toward the planet, crashing in a rural, sparsely inhabited area.  The Autobots are in similarly dire straits: the ship is out of control, so Optimus orders his crew to stasis pods as he attempts to manually correct the ship's trajectory, steering it away from a populated area.  The vessel crashlands in a lake, revealed to be Lake Erie, in Michigan, on Earth.

A young boy leaves the confines of his makeshift science lab to investigate a meteor strike, and finds the dismembered, smoking remains of Megatron himself!

 ***

Fifty years pass between scenes, and the city of Detroit has blossomed from a depressed slum into the city of tomorrow: a bustling, shiny metropolis filled with happy people and their companions, the robots manufactured by the Sumdac corporation: The same Sumdac who discovered the smoking asteroidal heap 50 years prior.  As Isaac Sumdac leads a tourgroup around the interior of his factory, his daughter and her robotic pup Sparkplug interrupt the instructional session: Sari is a headstrong, willful young lady, not fond of school, and even less fond of being cooped up within the walls of the Sumdac skyscraper.  As the tourgroup passes one of Sumdac's bio-technical labs, an experiment begins to grow awry, transforming a cockroach into a monstrous, nano-machine-powered blob of destruction.

The beast wreaks havoc around the lab, but is finally restrained by the forces of the Detroit police department, under the command of Captain Fanzone (who sounds conspicuously like a certain foulmouthed NYPD detective from prime time tv).  The monster gets blown up, but as parts of the dismembered heap begin to re-construct themselves, a small blob gets free, swimming down to the silty bed of Lake Erie, seeking out technology to absorb.  It wiggles its way into a crack in the Autobot vessel's hull, tripping the ship's intruder alert.  The alarm awakens the slumbering Autobots, who decide it is better to help than stay dormant.  They take on the forms of the Detroit PD's response vehicles, and make their way to the surface to do battle with the monstrosity.

As the battle rages, Prowl is seriously injured, and requires immediate medical attention, the kind Ratchet is not able to provide with the limited resources aboard the ship.  As Prowl's life force fades, Sari, having stowed away inside her new friend Bumblebee, makes contact with the Allspark.  The device imbues the keycard she wears with a fragment of its own power.  But her wonder at her discovery is short-lived, as Optimus Prime finds the girl and brings her above decks.  As the Autobots watch Prowl slip away, Sari's key begins to glow, pulling itself toward Prowl's wound as if by its own force of will.  The key reconfigures itself into a shape matching a slot covering Prowl's own spark, and Sari plunges it into the keyhole.  The Autobots are engulfed by a blinding flash of light, but Prowl is healed: the power of the Allspark has found a new home in the Autobots' new human friend.

As they return Sari to the surface, tensions mount as the Detroit police close in on the Autobots.  Sari succeeds in convincing Fanzone that the Autobots are friendly: they helped to defeat the monster, and they saved her life.  Afterward, the Autobots are hailed as heroes… brand new synthetic celebrities.

 But deep in the outer reaches of the cosmos, the Decepticon ship is still functional, though severely damaged.  Aboard, Starscream, patched up and discouraged after 50 years  of searching, notices a slight ping of Allspark-related energy coming from a tiny little ball of rock in a completely unnoticed sector of space.  He will have the Allspark… and he will conquer Cybertron.

***

From the start, there's a new attitude toward the way the characters are designed and how they're animated.  Gone are the stiff and stoic 'bots of Energon and Cybertron, and the poorly-rendered and often error-riddled Armada characters.  Even the almost overt anime stylings, inspired by shows like Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi! and Teen Titans, don't resemble the stock and trade animation seen in Robots in Disguise.  The show features a new sense dynamism and an aesthetic verve that has never been attached to the Transformers.  It's extraordinarily refreshing to notice that the animators took the time to include subtle bits of visual continuity, as well: for instance, in one scene, Megatron grabs and crumples the armor on Starscream's wing.  Even in the fifty year gap between the prologue of the show and the epilogue, Screamer's wing is still dinged up.  Ratchet's forehead crest is half missing, and stays like that even after he's been reformatted into a Terran body.  This attention to detail and visual continuity was lacking in the prior four Transformers series, and even the strained budgets of Beast Machines and Beast Wars couldn't support such temporary changes to character models.

The voice acting is superb.  Characters like Starscream and Ratchet are almost pure, spot-on G1 mimicry, expertly portrayed by Tom Kenney and Corey Burton (expertly channeling the late Chris Latta and the late Don Messick); new additions to the cast like Lugnut and Bulkhead exude their own personality. Bulkhead, performed by the almost-typecast Bill Fagerbakke, is a mixture of the actor's two most notable characters: Gargoyles's Broadway and Spongebob Squarepants's Patrick, into a likeable, huggable lunkhead of a bot.  Lugnut, in a huge diversion from David Kaye's normal "cool and collected" villainous archetype, is a manic and boisterous Megatron-worshipping zealot.  Kaye also portrays Optimus, who has the requisite selfless Optimus Prime trademark tint to his voice, but also carries a very well-portrayed uncertainty in his abilities.  Bumper Robinson also has double duty, as the manic and split-personalitied Blitzwing, who figures in as little more than a cameo in the episode.  The triple-changer also has three distinct personalities, all of them speaking with a comical German (or Austrian) accent.  Robinson's Bumblebee combines characteristics from every upstart Transformer to come down the pike: Hot Rod, Sideburn, Rattrap, Cheetor, Hot Shot, and a little bit of the old-school Bee as well.  Jeff Glenn Bennett's Prowl is monotone and almost emotionless, but it never comes off as a straight reading of lines.  Bennett manages to inject a steely, unapproachable personality into Prowl. 

The plot is what we've seen since Robots in Disguise: protect the McGuffin from the Decepticons at all costs, with the Allspark standing in for O-Parts, Mini-Cons, Energon stars, and the Cyber Planet Keys (and standing in for itself in the case of Michael Bay's live action version).  But it's handled differently in Animated.  The Autobots address different concerns than simply protecting the Allspark, although it's always at the forefront of their mission.  

All in all, this show looks to be the best Transformers has been in nearly a decade.  What it really boils down to is getting the storytelling back into Western hands: the Japanese series have been (in some part) nice to look at, but lacked any real substance, serving as simply a wan storytelling device to support a toy line.  The return of Marty Isenberg and an entirely US-based staff to the writing duties of the show has brought us a cohesive story not dictated by the toy line's over-arcing gimmick.  Animated is bringing us actual characters again, not just action figures.  January 5 can't come soon enough.

Solid A, all around.

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