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Before Everyone Hated Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ Movies, They Hated 1986’s ‘Transformers: The Movie’

How the 1980s animated movie went from box office bomb to cult classic

“I’ve gotten it a hundred times,” begins screenwriter Ron Friedman. “People will come up to me and say, ‘You son of a bitch. I was seven years old and went to go see the Transformers movie, and you killed Optimus Prime!’ Then, they follow that up with, ‘Will you please sign my underwear?’” 

Now 88, Friedman explains to me that in his nearly 60 years of writing television — which amounts to over 700 hours worth — he’s never experienced anything like the backlash he got after the 1986 animated film Transformers: The Movie

Nowadays, the original Transformers movie is celebrated by the Transformers fandom, but the reaction was very different back in the 1980s. An animated movie made to sell toys was never expected to be a critic’s darling; yet one would think that it would be a slam dunk to please the fans, but no — not even close. In a way, the reaction to the 1986 movie would echo the outrage people had to the Michael Bay movies a generation later, in that fans and critics alike panned the film. But while Bay’s movies were criticized as being vapid, confusing and racist, Friedman’s movie had only one major flaw: He killed the most beloved Transformer ever.

Optimus Prime had been the leader of the Autobots since the first episode of The Transformers debuted in 1984. He was heroic, had an awesome voice (courtesy of Peter Cullen), a killer catchphrase (“Autobots, transform and roll out!”), and being that he transformed into a big-rig truck, he was one of the heaviest hitters in the whole franchise. Hands down, Optimus Prime was the most popular character in The Transformers cartoon, although part of that was simply by default: Not only was he the leader, but Friedman explains, “There were so many fucking characters in that show that it was hard to get to know them.” Indeed, since it was a show designed around selling toys, Hasbro originally put little thought into developing the characters, which is why they hired Friedman in the first place. 

Friedman had had a great deal of success creating the G.I. Joe cartoon, so when Hasbro found problems with their new robot show, they turned to Friedman. “I was brought in to rewrite the first 60 episodes of the cartoon,” Friedman explains. “They hadn’t debuted yet, but Hasbro knew that there was nothing there to connect to, so I was asked to rewrite all the episodes, including ones that were already partially animated — they were going to re-edit them.” 

From there, Friedman dove as deep as he could, given the limitations set by Hasbro and what already had been animated, trying his best to make a surrogate family out of the autobots, of which Optimus was obviously the father figure. Still, Friedman wanted to go deeper, so when they decided to go forward with a Transformers theatrical film and asked him to write it, he had some requests. “I had to get rid of the energon [the glowing fuel source that drove most of the plots]. Almost every episode of the cartoon was about the Transformers looking for or finding energon — it was boring. So when it came time for the movie, the energon had to go.”

He also demanded a female autobot be made, which she was. But most importantly, Friedman wanted actual stakes, which meant that Transformers were going to have to die. “In order to have light, you’ve got to have darkness too. Walt Disney knew that, so I knew that some characters were going to have to die in this movie,” says Friedman, adding that Hasbro had no problem with that, as it presented an opportunity to introduce more characters and sell more toys. Unfortunately, Hasbro took Friedman’s idea a little too far, demanding that Optimus Prime be among the casualties in the film. 

“I warned them,” Friedman says. “I told Hasbro, ‘You can’t kill Optimus Prime,’ because he was ‘big daddy’ in the mythological narrative. He was Odin or Zeus and you can’t kill him off, the family will fall apart.” Despite his objections, Hasbro went forth with the idea of killing Optimus. And so, Friedman dealt with it. “Look, I was a hired gun, and I was prepared to shoot the marshall if they wanted me to. If I was going to write it though, I was going to make it great.”

Making Prime’s death memorable is exactly what Friedman did. Though it occurs only a third of the way into the film — which is as late as Friedman was allowed to put it in — Prime dies after an epic bout with his longtime nemesis Megatron. Why the wounds he sustains in this fight prove fatal to the robot, while countless other injuries over the years didn’t, was never really clear to me, but the scene on Optimus’ death bed, surrounded by the Autobots, was surprisingly emotional and resonant for a movie about talking alien trucks. A particularly nice touch was one insisted on by Friedman — when Optimus finally succumbs to his injuries, the color fades from the character.

Adult Transformers fans can now appreciate the surprising depth of that scene, but many of the six-year-olds who went to see the movie in theaters failed to do so, and there are stories online about kids crying in the theater over the death of Optimus. To add to the outrage, several other characters that fans cared about were also killed off, the most notable of which was the power-hungry Starscream, easily the most interesting villain in the franchise. In their places, a bunch of new, unknown characters filled the ranks, whose only real objective was to sell more and more new toys. For Optimus, his replacement was the truly absurdly-named Rodimus Prime, a prideful young racecar who grows into a hero throughout the film. 

“What I tried to do with Rodimus Prime was come up with a character who was interesting enough so that maybe people would like him enough just to get through the movie without rebelling in the theater, attacking the ushers and setting fire to the box office,” Friedman explained once at a convention panel. Still, Friedman admits that “people weren’t satisfied with Rodimus as a replacement because they didn’t know him,” as he was yet another new character introduced solely for the movie. 

Nowadays, many old school Transformers fans insist that they liked the movie from the get-go. Friedman, too, says that about half the audience was pleased with the movie, but that still wasn’t enough to overshadow the disappointment. Even Friedman didn’t enjoy the premiere of the film because he says the mix was all off, with obnoxious music covering up much of the dialogue. “People had no idea what the fuck was going on,” he explains. He was also upset that they had snuck the word “shit” into the final version of the film, which he explains was a cheap way to get a PG rating in hopes of attracting an older audience. That move also angered a number of parents, Friedman says.

So critics didn’t like it, parents didn’t like it and half the fans were crying in their seats. Due to these early reactions, the movie never made all that much money. It was such a failure, in fact, that Hasbro’s upcoming G.I. Joe animated theatrical film (which made many of the same mistakes as Transformers, although it at least just sidelined its regular stars to make room for new characters/toys, rather than killing them) was cancelled — instead, it was released as a five-part TV special. Hasbro would also seemingly admit their mistake in killing Optimus, as he was revived in the cartoon just six months after the movie debuted. 

Thanks in large part to the revival of Optimus, the reappraisal of the theatrical film started almost right away. Sure, needless characters were introduced and some of the best characters were killed, but there was a lot of good stuff in the movie, too: A memorable villain, for example, in the giant transforming planet Unicron, played by the legendary Orson Welles in what would prove to be his last role. It’s also beautifully animated and has a properly ambitious scope. Most importantly though, Freidman succeeded in his efforts to build a family among the characters, something that was a struggle to do on Saturday mornings. And with the death of Optimus, he got to portray a family in grief. 

Thanks to these strengths and the widespread availability of the movie on VHS and later DVD, appreciation for Transformers: The Movie has grown over the years. In 2007, the admiration for the film became all the more pronounced when old-school Transformers fans — and lots of other people — were displeased with Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie. It may have upset them to see Optimus die as a kid, but in retrospect, many fans realized that Transformers: The Movie at least gave enough of a shit about those characters to give Optimus a proper, meaningful death, which stands in stark contrast to the emotionally empty Bay franchise.

As for Friedman, he was largely unaware of the resurgence until recently. “For the longest time, I avoided conventions, but that wasn’t because of Transformers. See, I used to go with my good friend Stan Lee, but one year, a drunk, 45-year-old man dressed as Wolverine came over to us and wouldn’t go away for the entire day. After that, I didn’t go back for years, until I had a book to sell, my memoir — I Killed Optimus Prime: Confessions of a Hollywood Screenwriter — so I figured I’d give it a shot.”

“When I finally did go,” Friedman continues, “I had generations of fans coming up to me and telling me how much they loved the movie and how much it meant to them. I had a lot of people tell me stories like, ‘My father died when I was six, and Optimus Prime became my father.’ That’s something I could Identify with, as my father died when I was 11 and later, when people told me I looked like an Army football player named Doc Blanchard, I began to keep a picture of him in my wallet. That’s what you do when you’re missing a father, you spend your life looking for father figures.”

No doubt this perspective came to mind when Friedman went to write Transformers: The Movie, which is likely why he felt so strongly that Hasbro shouldn’t “kill Big Daddy” to begin with. In retrospect though, perhaps Hasbro was right. Of course, Hasbro was just replacing characters as a cynical attempt to sell more toys, but by killing off their most popular character, they inadvertently created what is probably the most memorable and emotional moment in all of Transformers history. The credit, of course, doesn’t really belong to Hasbro, though, as Friedman was the one who cared enough to make the death matter, ensuring the entire Transformers franchise a long and healthy life — and Friedman himself, a lifetime of underwear signings.