2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Hasbro’s Transformers line. They’re celebrating with a TON of new toys all marked with special commemorative packaging in the Transformers Universe line. The Universe will feature the already established updates of beloved G1 characters, but also branched out into the Beast era by the end of the first quarter. This year we’ll also see a sequel to the 2007 blockbuster Transformers movie and a new season of Cartoon Network’s Transformers Animated. With Hasbro pulling out all the stops, we here at Panels on Pages thought it was only appropriate to pay our respects with a look back at every era of Transformers history. So Lee went nuts and did this. For 2 weeks, he’ll be looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of both the TV shows and toys and even the comics that we’ve been eating up for two and half decades. It wasn’t always great, but it was always Transformers. So strap in and roll out!
Day 9 - Transformers Animated (2008-2009)
When promotional images started to surface of the new Transformers show, the “This is going to suck” cycle began anew. I’m not too proud to admit that even we here at PoP! had our doubts about the new direction of the franchise based on the bright, sleek images presented to us. It instantly looked like it would be made exclusively for kids. Granted, kids are almost always the target for Transformers, but they gave us Beast Wars 10 years ago, and it was stellar. So was it so much to ask for a new more mature show? These designs (from the team behind shows like Teen Titans and Ben 10) were certainly cartoony and dripping of that faux anime thing that’s so hot these days. And no way would these things work as toys. They’re too sleek. The toys will look like crap.
And then (surprise, surprise) we saw some of it. At the San Diego Comic Con and Botcon, we were treated to some preview footage that eased a lot of minds. You can’t please everybody, but many fears were put to rest. Now officially dubbed Transformers Animated (initial reports called the show Transformers Heroes) in an effort to differentiate it from the movie (because people are that daft, apparently), the show debuted as a 90-minute movie just after Christmas 2007 before launching the series proper in January of 2008 (with a new season this year). It certainly wasn’t what people were expecting. Yes, it was bright and flashy and it did have that faux anime thing going for it, but it was also much more than that. Transformers Animated is certainly a book not to be judged by its cover.
Animated begins in space with the young Optimus Prime and his crew of maintenance bots as they set repair space bridges. They soon find (or are found by) the AllSpark, which then attracts the attention of Megatron, the legendary leader of the long-defeated Decepticons. Of course they find their way to Earth and thus hijinks ensue. The show certainly borrows from the movie, but it’s also full of more classic references (it’s got G1 voice actors!) as well as being something completely new. What’s interesting is that use of old G1 footage in the opening scenes and the inclusion of some Beast characters means that if they decided to do so, the writers could conceivably fit this show into the G1/BW timeline. These things are almost certainly meant to be inside jokes only, but still, it’s worth mentioning. The bulk of the first season sees a dismantled Megatron scheming to rebuild his broken body and so the Autobots battle a series of human villains in most of the episodes.
While the focus on human enemies may seem like a strange move, it actually serves the characters more than you might think. The Decepticons work a lot behind the scenes, especially in the show’s second season so that when they do come face to face with the Autobots, it’s a big deal. They’re a genuine threat and not the bumbling daily losers of past shows. Honestly, how ineffective was G1 Megatron? He NEVER succeeded. He got his shiny ass handed to him EVERY episode. No wonder Starscream wanted to take him out. Animated also throws the viewers a bone with non-affiliated Transformers (though they tend to lean more to the Decepticon side) like Lockdown (voiced by Lance Henrikson!) and Swindle (voiced by Fred Willard!) that really add some flavor.
Like Beast Wars, this new show has a very tight core cast and the show focuses a lot on characterization so we’re not bombarded with constant new faces. Even the villains are recurring, bringing to mind Batman: the Animated Series, but with stronger attention paid to continuity. That said, the show does have a strong supporting cast of both human and robot characters. Sari Sumdak is the obligatory human character, but unlike many of her predecessors, she has an arc and mystery surrounding her that is legitimately interesting and only got better when the mystery was finally solved in season 3. The Autobot Elite Guard currently comprised of Autobot Commander Ultra Magnus, Sentinel Prime, Jetfire, Jetstorm, Jazz and Blurr come into the show intermittently, but are never intrusive. All in all the show has a very organic feel to it and is shaping up to leave quite a footprint on Transformers lore.
But those designs certainly can’t translate to toys, right? That’s what fans were saying all along. It’s impossible. They’re too sleek… Right? Wrong! They’re amazing. First, it should be said that since the movie toys were still selling like proverbial hot cakes, Hasbro decided not to release the Animated toys until June of 2008, a full six months after the show’s premiere and in fact after the first season had finished. It’s a weird move, but one that didn’t seem to hamper sales, and in fact, the line is still selling well, even now that the show isn’t currently airing new episodes (gotta love those reruns). But these guys were worth the wait. It is honestly a testament to the design and animation teams working together that these toys work as well as they do. Gone are the days of Planet Keys and Minicons. These are old-school Transformers. That’s what they do. They transform. Individual figures feature unique gimmicks like auto-morphing, when applicable, but no specific feature is shoehorned into the entire line. That’s not to say there are no gimmicks. Continuing the trend from the movie line, there are several kiddie lines and nontransforming toys for little ones like Bumper Battlers and Activators in addition to the core line.
So the main hook is once again transformation, and they transform to a frighteningly successful degree. Honestly, if you watch the show, then you know that these toys SHOULDN’T work like they do. The designs are so stylized that to make them real should be impossible, and yet somehow they pulled it off in nearly every instance. I say “nearly” because there is some cheating. Bumblebee, for instance, has a fake chest that is stored inside his car form and only LOOKS like the roof of the car in robot mode when the actual roof ends up split in two pieces as kibble on the back of his legs. This gives his robot form a very show-accurate look, but it totally cheats to do it. The Leader class Bulkhead figure also cheats a bit, adding a turret to his vehicle mode to hide his robot head while accommodating the electronic gimmick below it.
Other figures like deluxe class Prowl are marvels of engineering. You can look at Prowl’s motorcycle form and you’d almost never think it turned into a robot and then think the same thing about his robot form. The design is great and the toy is just as good. Prowl just might be the most impressive deluxe figure I’ve ever seen. The Voyager Optimus Prime isn’t without his own marvels. The design trick they use to get BOTH sets of wheels to rest on the bottom of his legs is both genius and simple. Triple-changer Blitzwing has the unenviable task of making good on THREE different stylized forms, and the toy pulls it off surprisingly well. Shockwave has FOUR if you count both robot modes, pulling double duty as Autobot Longarm (He’s a spy, after all), and who wouldn’t? He totally has four modes. Of all the Animated figures so far, the most show-accurate has to be Wreck-Gar (voiced by Weird Al in the show! Old school fans will get the joke.). That thing is INSANELY close to his animation model, despite (or perhaps because of) his very simple transformation.
So the toys rock (but we’re missing Contructicons!). This much was blazingly apparent in the infant stages of the line. It wasn’t all gravy, however. Initial reports came in from all over the country that the line suffered from some serious quality control problems like overly loose joints and just general fragility resulting in breakage. How much of these claims were warranted and how much was overhyped by whiny fans is hard to gauge, but many of the legitimate issues can be fixed at home with a little work and Hasbro has indeed addressed these issues publicly and has instituted running changes on some toys. As a personal grief, I take issue with the Sentinel Prime toy. He’s a fine figure, for sure, but he’s too small. If you have the core cast of the show with the Leader class Bulkhead, the Autobots are actually very nicely in scale with one another… Except for Sentinel Prime. For some reason he’s a Deluxe class figure when he CLEARLY should have been a Voyager. But that’s just how I feel about it.
Another point of interest for the Animated toy line is that literally every character made into a toy either has been or will soon be featured in either the cartoon or the comic book, meaning that there’s not a single toy that you won’t be able to identify as a recognizable character. When you compare that to Beast Wars, whose toy line had TONS of figures despite the show’s small cast and lack of concurrently running comic book, it’s pretty astounding. The comic book series is being written by the show’s story editor Marty Isenberg and thus far has done a great job of expanding the new Animated universe and (in what is a first for the franchise) NOT contradicting it during the show’s off season (and beyond).
So that brings us to today. The new (and by most accounts final) season of Transformers Animated wrapped recently, and in a matter of days, we’ll see the release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel to the movie. Both of these promise new toys and new characters. All of this is in addition to Hasbro’s plans for the 25th anniversary and the Universe line (we’ll get to that, too). With all the major eras of the franchise covered, we’re just about finished with our look back at the Transformers. Be sure to check back in tomorrow as we take a look at the “other stuff” before we finish it all off.
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