Transformers, more than meets the eye. Transformers, robots in disguise. Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.
A set of timeless lyrics that tells you perhaps all you need to know about the Transformers concept. However, as this franchise (now over twenty years old) has grown, keeping things simple perhaps hasn’t been a rule that’s been lived by. With one of the most devoted fan bases of modern times, a Transformers series can look to be roasted by this twenty-something audience if the struggles of these giant robots isn’t pulled off with all the drama and gravity of a Shakespeare play. But whilst some might enjoy that kind of thing, in general it has a hard time attracting an audience. This was a lesson hard learned by Beast Machines, sequel to the popular Transformers: Beast Wars, a series rooted heavily in continuity and controversial philosophical discussion. The result was a series that alienated adults and kids alike.
Whilst Hasbro and Takara made plans for their next relaunch of the franchise, a filler series was commissioned. Although originally intended for only the Japanese market, the series would serve much the same role in the U.S. Titled Carrobots, it combined the format of the original series (now subtitled Generation 1) with a few of the more popular ideas brought forward by the sequels. For its English language release, the show was retitled Transformers: Robots in Disguise.
Set at the dawn of the 21st century, the plot sees the heroic Autobots (lead as always by Optimus Prime) fighting the forces of the sinister Predacons (commanded by Prime’s eternal rival, Megatron). The Predacons kidnap famed scientist Dr. Onishi, hoping to find in his advanced research the means to conquer the universe. Onishi’s young son Kouji is recruited by Prime to join the Autobots, to help save his father and stop Megatron’s plans.
What results is a breath of fresh air in the continually over-dramatic Transformers franchise. The first sign of this is that the show is separate from the original Transformers universe that each series had been set in up to this point (although recent official Japanese timelines attempt to shoehorn it in as well). Robots in Disguise is thus a generally fresh slate, much like the various Gundam series of the past decade or so. It’s a sharply written action comedy from the same scribes as Samurai Pizza Cats and SD Gundam Force. However, the series remains aware of its history in a more subtle fashion. Peppered throughout the dub version are a number of references to the franchise’s history, from general terminology to one-off bit characters having names of likewise obscure characters from the original series. It’s a loving series of homages which don’t add unneeded confusion but do add extra fun for the long-time fans.
Although it’s not bogged down with pre-existing continuity, and most of its storylines are episodic, there is a continuing plot thread concerning the Predacons and their need for Dr. Onishi’s research, which in standard fashion gains more focus in the second half of the show.
For those like myself, who enjoy this series, one main draw would have to be the characters. Optimus Prime, for example, is his usual warm yet authoritative self, and is brought to life by a strong performance by Neil Kaplan that echoes Peter Cullen’s original. Megatron is perhaps at his most ruthless here. Unlike his warlord and Sean Connery-ish predecessors, this Megatron is a multi-form tyrant of unimaginable power. Perhaps most memorable, though, is Sky-Byte, Megatron’s loyal, shark-styled second in command. A haiku-writing loyal hound, Sky-Byte’s desperate desire to please his master and be an effective commander to his trio of minions will have you rooting for him, especially when he has to compete against the Decepticons, Megatron’s newer and more competent vehicle-based minions. The Decepticons themselves are led by Scourge, an evil, black Optimus Prime clone who has become something of a staple since.
As with any Transformers series, a lot of the fun itself is found in the transformations. Robots in Disguise is pretty evenly split; the Autobots and Decepticons use classic vehicle forms whilst the Predacons use animal-styled beast forms. Megatron is something of an exception. To sell him as the big bad of the series, he has a number of forms on both sides of the fence, from a bat and two-headed dragon to a race car and even a giant clawed hand.
This is the second full DVD release of the series within the United Kingdom. Rights issues and Disney’s lack of interest have kept the show unavailable in the U.S., but Jetix UK has twice released the series, split into two box sets. Each set contains roughly twenty episodes, divided among three DVDs. The discs have static menus, sporting the series logo, legal jargon, and the option to individually select an episode or to play all episodes on the disc. Video and audio quality is fine, with no major issues to speak of.
For the packaging, Jetix commissioned new art. This appears to be the standard for their releases, with them recruiting artists from many places, including Toon Zone’s own Drawing Board. The art on these sets is credited to Eamon O’ Donoghue and has a wonderful duality theme. The first set has a face shot of Prime, whilst the second has a similar shot of Megatron. It’s simple but high quality and works really well. Sadly, this is perhaps the only positive of the packaging. The three-disc plastic packaging comes with an unnecessary cardboard box that copies everything exactly from the sleeve. If these were slipcovers it might just make sense, but these are full boxes with a flap. It seems like a needless waste, and I’ll likely be sending these off to recyclables. In addition, the synopses on both sets are identical and error ridden; the producers seem to have relied on Google searches for their research, as the synopsis mixes elements from the Japanese and English versions: the lead human character is consistently referred to by his Japanese name of Yuki; the villains are called Decepticons; and Megatron on one occasion is referred to by his Japanese name “Gigatron.”
Transformers: Robots in Disguise is a fun little series, and is not as continuity heavy as the main timeline or as toy-pushing as the recent Unicron Trilogy. It’s just a good, fun action comedy that sets out to entertain you. If it’s not your cup of tea, fine. There are plenty of other Transformers series that likely are. But for those who want a good quality show you can sit back and relax with, I think this will suit you well.
Autobots! Transform and roll out!