The fascination with the shape-shifting toy may have something to do with a metamorphosis this nostalgic cohort wants to forestall -- the change to adulthood.
All right, I've done it. I’m guilty. Like many other 30-something males, I have fallen victim to the mass hysteria that is Transformers. When Michael Bay officially announced that he would be directing the new live-action Transformers movie, some blogs and message boards filled with the ranting of adult Generation Xers who feared the worst for their beloved shape-shifting robots, that they would be altered for the movie to the point beyond recognition. Not me: I watched the 1986 animated movie, rummaged through my old toys in my attic to see which ones I still have after all of these years, and watched every trailer I could find on the Internet pertaining to the new film. Several of my buddies and I planned to see it when it opened. Yes, we are geeks, and our wives are very proud of us.
What is wrong with us? Why does Generation X feel this insatiable need to relive its childhood through the re-emergence of '70s and '80s pop-culture icons? How is it that Transformers, known for its cheesy animation, cliché one-liners (“One shall stand, one shall fall”) and dated robots (a cassette-tape player and a microscope? C’mon) has suddenly exploded from cult status to a mainstream record-breaking, moneymaking machine?
Unlike Star Wars figures, Transformers toys preceded their media representation. Initially, Hasbro, the company that brought us G.I. Joe, created the Transformers, and the cartoon series was devised to help market them. The series became a huge success, as did the action figures. Optimus Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee, among other characters, became part of young boys’ imagination. But when Optimus Prime, along with most of the other Autobots, were killed off in the 1986 animated film, Transformers: The Movie, to make way for a new product line, parents and children alike were horrified. Shortly thereafter, the TV series seemed to fade into oblivion.
But now Hasbro has managed to pull off the same magic trick as they did in 1984 and by the same means: They made a very long commercial.
Around the time Spider-Man made its giant leap from comics to the cinema screen in 2002, Hasbro began examining its toy lines for boys, eventually deciding that its Transformers could do the same thing. Brian Goldner, Hasbro’s chief operating officer, realized that most of the boys who played with Transformers in the '80s are now adult men. He knew that we would be suckers for it. And we are. We've become nostalgia-loving adults who find it comforting to revel in childhood as a sign that we don’t take ourselves as seriously as our parents, the baby boomers, had. It's not that we have refused to grow up, but like the transforming toys we loved so much, the transformation from childhood to adulthood is one which we want to take our time making, figuring out the right twists and turns, making sure every piece of our lives is in place. As adults, we use that ability to be able to transform from adulthood to childhood and back again. With the release of the new Transformers movie, it has given us an excuse to dig back through our old boxes of toys and catch reruns of the original series. Whether or not it was intended, it's giving us a chance to remember what it was like to be a kid in the '80s and how much we've changed since then.
The 1986 Transformers movie, on the other hand, went a little deeper. It taught us that sometimes heroes fall and the ones we least expect rise to take their place. It broke boundaries as the one of the first animated movies for children to feature a rock soundtrack, to portray graphic displays of death and violence (Megatron shooting an Autobot in the head at close range, smoke pouring from a dying Autobot's eyes and mouth as if it was blood, and Decepticons shooting Ultra Magnus execution style), and casting well-known celebrities to provide the voices. Not to mention the use of expletives in the film -- which seemed like the coolest thing ever. To me and many other preteen boys, Transformers: the Movie allowed us to feel grown up without sacrificing our childhoods. In a way, Hot Rod 's transformation to the new Autobot leader after Prime's death was his rite of passage. It suggests the transformation from childhood to adulthood, picking up where our parents left off. It's easy to see why Hasbro was convinced that the Transformers could make such a triumphant return to mainstream culture.
But if anyone else should be blamed, perhaps it is George Lucas. He pioneered nostalgia marketing by reviving the Star Wars series, catering to those who grew up collecting the action figures and spent entire days watching all three movies back to back, quoting every line and analyzing who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo. First, Lucas re-released the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition in 1997, featuring some cosmetic alterations. Then rumors began flying that he was working on the Star Wars prequels, centered on Darth Vader's origin. For months, Generation X adults searched the nascent Internet for news of what these films might hold in store. Finally, when Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace was released in theaters in 1999, we had already begun new Star Wars toy collections and completely immersed ourselves in Star Wars culture anew, more so than we had even when we were kids, since we had much more extensive means at our disposal.
And though each prequel failed to meet overhyped expectations, we went to see the subsequent installments, ever hopeful that the films might again satisfy our childlike excitement, provide the same magic, the same escape from reality as they did growing up. Maybe like his fans, Lucas simply is unable to let this series go. He is reportedly planning a new live-action series in 2008, as well as a rumored animated series.
Besides Lucas, another culprit is Kevin Smith, who brought Generation X out of the fanboy closet with 1994's Clerks, which started a string of films dealing with 20-something slackers who spent most of their time discussing the finer points of Star Wars or superhero sex. Suddenly, it was acceptable -- cool, even -- to admit to liking these icons from our childhoods.
Judging by online reviews of Transformers, viewers fall into two camps: There are those who simply remember the toys from when they were kids and laud the film for the nostalgia trip it launched them on, and there are the hardcore fans, who collect the toys and comics and continue to follow the many incarnations of the television show, and who ask questions such as “Why does Optimus Prime have flames? He never had flames in the cartoon.” “Why isn't Megatron a gun?” “Why is Bumblebee a Camaro instead of a Volkswagen?”
But what these aggrieved fans fail to realize is that the film companies, the toy companies, the advertisers and all other vested interests in a multimillion business venture such as Transformers need to make as much money as possible on their product. In the end, no matter how sentimental we may be about our heroes from childhood, if they can't pull in money, then they are just a failed franchise.
But the producers of Transformers need not fear failure: it set a new record for best Tuesday opening with a gross of $27.5 million. And the onslaught of Gen X childhood nostalgia films won't stop with Transformers: Rumor has it that the Smurfs will be coming soon to a theater near you.