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Restored classic shakes off rust on DVD

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Orson Welles hated his final role. He thought so little of it he couldn’t even recall the name of the character he voiced. “I play a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys,” Welles said cryptically of the movie.

For the record, he was mostly right. His character, Unicron, is an insatiable, planet-devouring robot that threatens the whole galaxy in “Transformers: The Movie,” an animated classic from 1986. Like the project as a whole, Unicron was dreamed up for the sole purpose of selling more Transformers toys, the white-hot phenomenon of the ’80s. Whether he wanted to or not, Welles helped fulfill that goal admirably.

More surprising, though, is the film’s current cult status among children of the ’80s. When it was released, it was marketed so poorly that it was out of theaters before kids even knew it was made. Critics reamed it for its dark and violent tone. No Transformers had died on the kid-friendly animated show, yet they were dying by the dozens in the movie. The most egregious violation of all, according to naysayers, was the gutsy choice to kill off the noble Optimus Prime, heart and soul of the series, midway through the film. His death was short-lived, but its impact was not.

Twenty years later, hindsight has been much kinder to the film. In many ways, the movie was ahead of its time. In the ’90s, shows like “Batman: The Animated Series” won Emmys for their grim, gritty approach to superheroics. But never before had animated fare, especially one with the enormous fan following that the Transformers enjoyed, gone this dark.

As a movie, “Transformers” worked perfectly well for what it was: an intergalactic adventure that juggled its sizable cast of characters with ease. The first act of the film is one of the strongest of any animated movie outside of the Disney banner. The evil Megatron launches a devastating attack on the Autobots, only to be halted by the arrival of Optimus Prime.

Robots on both sides suffer grievous injuries and die. The Autobots are left without a leader after Prime’s death. Hope is tenuous. And Unicron looms in the distance, ready to devour all. The second and third acts suffer in comparison, but characters change, mature and are redeemed. Heroes rise to the occasion, and robots on both sides live to disguise themselves and fight another day.

On the cusp of Michael Bay’s $150 million live-action film, Sony BMG has dug deep into the Transformers archives and has released a two-disc special edition DVD to coincide with the animated film’s 20th anniversary.

Prior to this release, the widescreen version of the original theatrical release had never been available on home video. This release contains both widescreen and fullscreen versions, the latter of which has been available on video tape for years. With a remastered and color-corrected image and cleaned-up audio, the movie looks and sounds better than ever before.

The second disc is loaded with special features that cater to both mild and hardcore fans. Chief among these are three thorough featurettes on the controversial death of Optimus Prime, the film’s ensemble cast of characters and the impressive stable of voice talent (which included celebrities like Leonard Nemoy, Casey Kasem, Judd Nelson and Welles).

This DVD is an impressive set for an animated movie already two decades old, especially one that was neglected upon its initial release. It’s inspired and exhaustive, unlike most of the bare and subpar DVDs that accompany films no more than six or eight months old.

Welles’ scorn for “Transformers” seems justifiable. After all, this was the American legend who co-wrote, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane” at age 26. Like the character he played in his final role, he was a big toy in a world of smaller toys. He may not have respected it. But his imposing presence added gravitas to a film that took itself seriously and continues to be remembered for it.