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Review: “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” Has a Lot of Spark

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Transformers: Robots in Disguise

Transformers: Robots in DisguiseTransformers: Robots in Disguise is an interesting transition from Transformers Prime. While each Transformers show seems to reinvent the franchise, Robots in Disguise has the honor of being a direct sequel to Prime. While the latter was an epic space opera, Robots in Disguise excludes the melodrama in favor of peppy, feel-good fun. Those who expect or desire a similar level of bleakness will be sorely disappointed. Personally, I always felt Prime was too serious for its own good, so Robots in Disguise’s lighter offering is all the better for it.

Robots in Disguise opens up an ambiguous amount of years after the events of Prime. Bumblebee, formerly one of Optimus Prime’s top soldiers, is a now a beat cop. During a routine patrol, Bumblebee reunites with Optimus’ spirit who guides him back to Earth for an important mission. It is there that he discovers the prison ship Alchemor has crash landed near Crown City, unleashing hundreds of Decepticons into the wild. Along for the ride is his rookie partner Strongarm, an eager-to-please by-the-book cop; Sideswipe, a young trouble marker; Fixit, the minicon who oversaw the Alchemor; and Grimlock, one of the escaped Decepticon prisoners. Together, they must gather up the Cons before they devastate the planet.

The premise treads well-worn paths by establishing the central Autobot vs. Decepticon conflicts, but this time around there is no Optimus Prime vs. Megatron. There’s no looming war on the horizon or apocalyptic urgency. The two-part pilot episode introduces a single Decepticon for the Autobots to fend off. Hundreds more are hiding in the woods and Bumblebee’s crew must catch them all while keeping their alien identities a secret from the human public. All of this creates a smaller, compact setting that visibly establishes a monster-of-the-week formula. The weight of the world that sat on Prime’s shoulders has been lifted, so Robots in Disguise can have the fun and adventure that a kid would enjoy without scrutiny. This is further carried out with the pilot episode antagonist Underbite. He’s a relentlessly hammy glutton with a ridiculous country accent. As cheesy as his dialogue is, his determination ensures he’s a viable threat throughout the two episodes. He’s a perfect representation for Robots in Disguise’s tone: a striking balance of lighthearted shenanigans and honest storytelling.

Transformers: Robots in DisguiseThe trim narrative leaves plenty of room to establish the five main characters. Each of the four Autobots (and one Decepticon) possess their own centralized personality with layers waiting to be analyzed. Strongarm stalwartly sticks to the law, yet is pragmatic enough to find loopholes so she can stay close to Bee and cheerfully hope that she, too, can work for a legend like Optimus Prime someday. Sideswipe alternates between an uncaring delinquent and reluctant helper, likely fueled by his easy bond with a human kid, Russell. Fixit is a rambling intellect and Grimlock likes to smash. The latter is the only Decepticon in the group and with his wild nature, I feel like he alone could open up a set of conflicts between his faction and the Autobots. At the heart of it all is Bumblebee, the exasperated leader constantly in self-doubt about his role. His personal journey is especially compelling because he’s under Optimus’ shadow, convinced he can’t ever live up to that legacy. This is further accentuated by his sheer frustrations keeping the other four in line.

The episodes do an amazing job building up this ragtag group of weirdos and the ensuring chaos that ensues when five radically different robots interact in closed spaces. Optimus Prime’s spirit appears at several junctions to guide Bumblebee, and the show foreshadows a potentially larger role for him to come. While a part of me is fearful that this will unnecessarily push the spotlight in his direction, Optimus is in a clever position where he can still be important without overtaking the A-plot. While they carry familiar tropes, each of characters vividly support their roles and provide endless amusement throughout.

Robots in Disguise is a colorful, vibrant world. The cel-shaded animation might take some time to get used to (and is certainly a downgrade from the photo realistic CGI of Prime’s), but the robot designs are a fluent mixture of cartoon exaggeration and sensibility.

Transformers: Robots in DisguiseThe only downside is the human father-son duo of Denny and Russell. Denny is the (seemingly mandated) paternal manchild, a stereotype so tiring that I’ve already dismissed him as an interesting character. He at least has a good chip on his shoulder when a situation rears its ugly head. Meanwhile, Russell largely comes across as a sourpuss. They explain his sullen behavior out as simple boredom, but I kept wondering what this kid’s deal was. They’ve got time to grow, but neither one of them stands out.

Transformers: Robots in Disguise feels like a spiritual successor to Transformers Animated, retaining a lot of its good points. It’s fun enough for younger audiences to appreciate while just barely implying something big is in the mist to whet older fans’ appetites. It’s not the most tantalizing opener I’ve seen from the franchise, but it’s got a lot of charm attached to it. The vibrant cast has enough energy to keep the simple plot running until the inevitable big guns show up. I can’t wait to see how the new band of Autobots take up the mantle this time.

Transformers: Robots in Disguise premieres on Saturday, March 14 at 6:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on Cartoon Network.