Back in 2010 I reviewed the premiere episodes of Transformers: Prime, Hasbro’s then latest entry in the franchise and a focal point of the ‘Aligned continuity’ that would attempt to focus on a specially constructed long term universe. I gave the premiere a favourable review and when the show drew to a close after three seasons and a television movie it stood as one of my all time favourites.
However, both myself and Hasbro are aware it wasn’t universally loved. Specifically the show was criticised for being dry, given its attempts to tell an epic story about a centuries long war where few combatants are left. Prime often shot for dark and foreboding and the result caused some issues with the core child audience, whether boredom or fear. When the time came to draft a sequel in Transformers: Robots in Disguise, these concerns were considered first and foremost.
Prime’s end saw the Autobots finally achieve the revival of their long dead home of Cybertron, though at the cost of Optimus Prime’s life. So with the Prime himself out of the picture, who would step up to be leader? We need look no further than Bumblebee, Optimus’ trusty scout who completed his previous character arc and regained his voice now. Bumblebee now serves as a beat cop on Cybertron, and while out on assignment with female rookie Strongarm in an attempt to stop the delinquent Sideswipe, Bee receives a spiritual summons to Earth from his former commander. An Autobot prison ship carrying a smorgasbord of Decepticon prisoners has crashed on Earth, with the inmates escaping in the confusion. Traveling to Earth alone to tackle this threat, Bee finds Strongarm and Sideswipe have tagged along against his orders. Joined also by the ship’s neurotic Mini-Con pilot Fixit and questionable inmate Grimlock, our yellow hero must find some way to fashion this ragtag band into a team of heroes. Sooner rather than later, as their first enemy is a juggernaut of a Decepticon capable of devouring entire cities.
I admit that I’ve not been completely sold by a lot of the promotional info in the lead up to this premiere. I really liked Prime (as I said back in 2010, it’s what the movies could have been if the director actually cared) and although I respect that as a 20-something I’m kind of a fringe demographic for the franchise, the lighter style of Transformers: Robots in Disguise felt like a too vast shift in the other direction. After watching the opening two parter, I’m still not 100% sold, but a large number of my misgivings have been silenced. Compared to Prime, which aimed for cinematic and bold, the tone with RID is much more Saturday morning kids cartoon. There’s a lot more goofiness and snark and an increased focus on audience avatar Russell, the kid who becomes the new Autobot team’s first human contact and is embarrassed by his junkyard running father. Prime gave us prominent human characters but their role was very much to aid the Autobots and focus on a conflict that massively overshadowed anything else in their lives. Here, we get focus on the strained relationship between father and son and Russell is a kid who finds the adventure he seeks, not a terrified youth who at any second could become a pancake.
Part of this focus is the bond he quickly forms with Sideswipe. A smart mouthed delinquent back on Cybertron, his interactions with the human hint at the more noble layers Bumblebee believes he possesses. It’s a very well handled dynamic between the two characters and avoids some of the annoying missteps taken with the similar character Smokescreen in the previous show. The remaining elements of Smokescreen kind of re-emerge in a better way with Strongarm. A by-the-book rookie who idolises both Optimus and Bumblebee, there’s enough presented here to suggest that she isn’t an annoying bore, and her hidden fangirl tendencies sometimes creep into her decision making. The creative team gave us a great female character last time in Arcee, so I welcome Strongarm being cut from the same cloth while having her own unique identity.
Of course, Bumblebee himself is the direct bridge between this show and the previous one, and based on this opener and some officially released clips, the writers will be using him to take a few swipes at audience criticism of the new tone. The idea of the unsure successor living in the shadows of legends has been with Transformers since Hot Rod debuted in the 1986 movie. Series such as Beast Wars, Animated and even Prime have shown it works well for the franchise. The conflicts in Transformers are often universe-spanning, but always at their memorable best when the focus is on throwing together a mismatched group of egos, locked against a threat out of their league. Bee has the immense challenge of protecting the planet with an untested team that just might self-destruct, and it’s hard not to sympathise with his uncertainty over living up to the mentor and friend he served under for so long. The voice work of Will Friedle helps too, as the man has a talent for portraying such characters perfectly.
The Decepticons are one of the weirder concepts. The final season of Prime made much of the idea that animal/beast transformers were oddities if not outright extinct, so it’s odd that apparently the entire prison ship was full of Cons who transform from clearly animal inspired robots into vehicles. Underbite, the antagonist for the opener, highlights this perfectly. After Prime gave us subtle and scary, we have a four legged giant that devours every metal object in sight and kisses his muscles while praising himself. Obviously more kid friendly, but a bit baffling. It’s known that the show will eventually reveal a mastermind villain in Steeljaw, so hopefully this is something that strikes a balance over time.
Animation is once again CGI handled by Polygon Pictures, using cell shading and much brighter colours than the previous show. Polygon managed to offer some beautiful, expressive animation with characteristic flourishes, so I’m mildly disappointed to say we don’t get to see much of that here other than Strongarm’s adorable jogging on spot while reporting in at one point. This isn’t bad animation but hopefully as the animators get use to the characters, we’ll see them interject those little quirks which they do so well. I can’t deny there’s more tics here than Prime’s constant “staring into the abyss” contemplative grim faces.
I think this is a good start for Transformers: Robots in Disguise. It’s nice to go back to this continuity again but this is an ideal soft reboot, something perhaps needed given the previous show is now five years old and its child audience will likely have moved on. In some ways I feel the show is over compensating for the previous perceived failings but 30 odd years of media has proven that Transformers is similar to Batman: flexible enough for stories to strike a multitude of tones and still be valid takes on the concept (well, barring a certain set of movies *ahem*). There’s always something enjoyable about seeing a team of underdogs making good and the lighter tone arguably evokes the fact this is no longer a story about a handful of battered survivors marooned far from their dead homeland.
Autobots, shuffle and strike!!………..Yeah. Bee is right, battle cries aren’t easy.
Transformers: Robots in Disguise premieres on Saturday, March 14 at 6:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on Cartoon Network.