McGinnis: A fan’s memories of growing up with ‘Transformers’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
Of all the absurd concepts that pop culture has deemed worthy of obsession, few reach the level of ludicrous speed quite like the animated commercials/toy line/blockbuster movie franchise known as “Transformers.”
Really, imagine if someone would try to pitch you this idea. “OK. There’s this planet out there, made up of sentient robots who can change into vehicles and all speak English for some reason. They crash-land on Earth, wake up, disguise themselves as cars, trucks and other stuff and fight each other. It’ll make a mint, I tells ya!”
As audiences the world over line up to take in a fourth helping of big-screen robot action with the release of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” on June 27, I can’t help but reflect what a long, strange ride it’s been for Optimus Prime and his fellow Cybertronians. For 30 years, the brand has been around in some form or another, though with the recent movies it truly feels as though Hasbro’s toy powerhouse has hit its peak of popularity, after a long period of lying near-dormant in the popular imagination.
Like most kids my age, I had full-on Transformers fever when I was growing up. I can measure my childhood in toy cycles — what figures dominated the imagination of children as they begged their parents for money while wandering the aisles of their local K-Mart. (I can only speak for the toys aimed at boys — there was strict separation between the sexes in the kids’ sections of my youth. Yay for early enforcement of institutionalized gender roles!)
The earliest toy memories I have are of He-Man, that bastion of masculinity who saved the planet of Eternia from the evil schemes of Skeletor on a daily basis. Like most superheroes, He-Man had a secret identity, “Prince Adam,” though anyone who had two brain cells should have been able to figure out who he was, since he looked identical in either form. Literally the only thing that changed was his attire — from skin-tight pastels to fuzzy underwear and voila! Secret identity is safe.
Transformers was the next craze, and felt like a step up in cool from the He-Man days. I mean, this was basically a no-brainer for any boy my age who loved two things without reservation: robots and cars. And these were … wait for it … robots that TURNED INTO cars. That idea alone was enough to sell a generation of consumers and help kids easily overlook any deficiencies in storytelling — which those early cartoons had a lot of.
I know of what I speak. After receiving the first season of the original series as a birthday gift one year, a group of my friends and I gathered to unearth some childhood memories. We found that some memories should remain buried. Even the most rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia gave us couldn’t disguise how truly bad the original “Transformers” cartoons were. From the horrific animation quality, to the lousy stories and inept dialogue, it was clear that our tastes had evolved.
And even as a kid, I remember moments of cynicism creeping into my “Transformers” fandom. I figured out early on that the whole point of the series was to sell me action figures, even as I played right into the game by begging my mom for new toys at every chance. When the 1986 “Transformers” animated movie killed off most of the original cast, I understood exactly what was going on — a clearing out of the old figures we’d already bought so new ones could take their place. Such overt cynicism broke the spell of the brand’s hold, and the initial “Transformers” craze died out pretty soon afterward — for me, and kids’ pop culture in general.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good works in the “Transformers” franchise. The recent “Transformers Prime” series was an excellent show that played off of nostalgia while building interesting stories off of the original mythology, still as ludicrous as ever. High Noon Studios’ “Cybertron” video games have been excellent action titles — everything that old school fans could want in terms of characters and settings, while still being compulsively playable as a game. And let it be said that the original “Transformers” live-action movie in 2007 was way better than it had any right to be.
I just hope that as a new generation of kids grows up with Optimus Prime and his fellow robotic warriors, they take the adventures with a grain of salt or two. And now that my generation is of the age where we are having kids of our own, we can help them understand as they grow to have just a touch of cynicism in their passion for franchises which are designed to thrill, entertain, excite, and make a ton of money — not necessarily in that order.
Tags: animation, Cybertron, Cybertronians, Eternia, Hasbro, He-Man, High Noon Studios, Jeff McGinnis, K-Mart, Optimum Prime, Pop Goes the Culture, robots, Skeletor, Transformers, Transformers: Age of Extinction