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Bay’s ‘Transformers’ morphs into summer blockbuster

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The “robots in disguise” are back. The iconic, shape-shifting robot characters of the “Transformers” world return to the big screen this summer in an epic film creators hope will reinvigorate and re-launch the franchise.

Launched in 1984 as a combination toy line/comic book series that quickly spawned a popular animated series, Transformers earned a spot in the minds of youths around the world as a fun, action-packed story about the basic premise of good versus evil. The unusual and imaginative “wow factor” of Transformers rests in the fact that the characters can transform into objects such as cars, planes or animals, lending the “Robots in disguise” and “More than meets the eye” taglines.

The basic premise of Transformers pits the intrinsically good Autobots – led by the benevolent Optimus Prime – against the evil Decepticons – ruled by the tyrant Megatron – in a search for new sources of energy on Earth, as resources on their planet Cybertron have run out. This basic plot, which has survived many years and changes to the Transformers universe, has always been the main focus of the series, especially on the big screen.

The first film adaptation of the show – “Transformers: The Movie” – debuted in 1986 as an animated picture that fit into the storyline of the animated television show that aired from 1984 to 1987. The film and TV series maintained the comic book look of the Transformers and remained popular throughout the 1990s. While often over-the-top and unrealistic, the animated programs were popular enough to sell millions of toys to fans, thus ensuring their popularity and longevity.

By 1996, however, the Transformers world was in need of a facelift and creators devised a new line of toys and television shows called “Beast Wars.” This took the traditional characters and gave them completely animal forms. Whereas the original Optimus Prime morphed into a semi-trailer truck, his Beast Wars counterpart was an ape named Optimus Primal.

The Beast Wars line also eventually died out and Transformers faded from the public consciousness until a statement in 2005 announced that a live-action film would roll into theaters in 2007. When Michael Bay was attached as director, Transformers fans experienced both delight and anguish.

There was no doubt that thrilling, epic action scenes would be present, but the big question was whether “Transformers” would follow the likes of Bay’s critical flops such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” or if it would become at worst a decent film such as “The Island.”

As the release date draws near and more production photos and stories become available, it seems that “Transformers” will be more like “The Island” – combining an effects extravaganza with a compelling storyline. A strong cast of supporting actors including Jon Voight, John Turturro and Bernie Mac join up-and-coming lead actor Shia LeBeouf (“Holes”) in performing what has been rated an intelligent script.

As with previous rehashes of the Transformers franchise, the new film will bring a new look to the robots. Gone is the boxy, old-fashioned look of the 1980s, replaced with a sleek, smooth style more befitting the 21st century.

Bay insisted that every mechanical part of the machines and their transforming motions be as realistic as possible so as to lend a credibility to his film that was sometimes lacking in the cartoons. The CGI will also have a level of detail never before seen, as Bay has boasted that it takes 38 hours to render a single frame of animation.

These stringent standards for the “Transformers” movie accompany high expectations held by a caring and loyal fanbase. These fans will subject the film to intense scrutiny and criticism not out of cynicism, but from a desire for the material to hold up to its beloved predecessors.

Only when the film is released July 4 will we know if Bay’s movie is more than meets the eye.