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Friday, June 17, 2016 

The time when Hasbro wanted to kill Optimus Prime in 1986

Den of Geek has some history on the animated cartoon movie from 1986 starring the Transformers, and how they wanted at the time to "kill off" the Autobots' leader, Optimus Prime, along with several other Autobots and Decepticons, because they thought that was the way to pave the road for new toy line models. Indeed, the cartoon movie differed from the TV show in one fundamental aspect:
When parents took their kids to see Transformers: The Movie in 1986, they probably weren’t expecting quite as much death and mayhem. But in the feature-length spin-off from the hit Hasbro toy-line and accompanying TV show, the spectre of death was everywhere; one early scene alone saw the evil Decepticons hijack an Autobot space shuttle and execute all the heroes inside.

It’s worth bearing in mind, first of all, that the Transformers TV series, which had been running for two years by that point, had never killed off any of its characters - even though they often engaged in protracted brawls and laser battles. In Transformers: The Movie, a number of much-loved characters were not only shot and killed, but occasionally died in surprisingly graphic fashion.
I may have seen some of that crummy cartoon movie years before (I even once owned a 3-issue miniseries based on it, from the time Marvel held the license, which wasn't very good), and I do recall seeing some clips more recently on Youtube where conniving Starscream was demolished by Megatron-turned-Galvatron, in revenge for dumping him out of a spaceship while they were retreating back to Cybertron. As a product featuring robo-deaths (and, IIRC, one human death too, as Spike Witwicky gets devoured by Unicron), it was certainly very alarming, and as crappy as the movie was, I'm wondering why they could show death in a film but not a TV show.

And this was a cartoon film known back then for "killing off" Optimus Prime. All so that Hot Rod could be turned into...Rodimus Prime. And take his place. Here's why they thought this was a brilliant idea:
From toy maker Hasbro’s standpoint, killing off all these characters came down to simple economics: Prime, Ratchet, Prowl and their compatriots were all part of the original 1984 Generation One line, and Hasbro wanted to replace them with shiny new toys like Kup, Blurr and Rodimus Prime. What better way to do it than in the Transformers’ big, expensive debut movie?

For kids who loved Optimus Prime, however, the Transformers robot massacre was akin to, say, Walt Disney shooting Mickey Mouse to death in the middle of Fantasia. In fact, Hasbro had completely failed to predict how kids - not to mention their exhausted parents - would react to Prime’s shock death. In a brief documentary on Transformers: The Movie’s 20th anniversary DVD, story consultant Flint Dille expresses his surprise at the level of grief the event provoked.

“We didn’t know that he was an icon,” Dille says, still seemingly baffled by the response. “It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”
If they want to introduce new toy models, that's fine. What I want to know is why they thought they had to put any particular robots into the mechanical afterlife in order to do that. On the plus side, Optimus Prime's death in the movie was via heroic circumstances; he died a brave fighter, valiantly combating Megatron. Even the co-stars who died went to mecha-heaven without being turned into villains and other awful ideas a la DC's subsequent Emerald Twilight. But it's idiotic to think they have to depict the robots of their toy lines dying in order to introduce new characters. All they had to do was quietly drop the older models and sure didn't have to go out of their way to depict the older line getting killed in a cartoon in order to reach that point. And one of the animators involved actually was opposed to the idea of putting the robots to mecha-death:
There was, however, one person working on Transformers: The Movie who apparently tried to avert Prime’s death: screenwriter Ron Friedman. Already the writer of GI Joe and the Transformers TV episodes, he was given the task of writing the Transformers movie script. Realising that Prime was the heroic father figure in the Autobot family, he advised Hasbro against killing the character off.

“I recognised that I needed to assign family identities to characters in order to create the recognition factor that young people need," Friedman explained in a 2013 interview with Todd Matthy. “They cannot verbalise this; it’s beneath the surface. To remove Optimus Prime, to physically remove Daddy from the family, that wasn’t going to work. I told Hasbro and their lieutenants they would have to bring him back but they said no and had ‘great things planned.’ In other words they were going to create new more expensive toys.”
Be that as it may, like I said before, it's not like they had to kill the robots in the script in order to make way for the new line of toys. Anyway, I think they did later revive Optimus Prime toys for the stores, and thus got that little issue out of the way. Ultimately, the animated film was set at least 2 decades into the future, and that's how they got around the debacle they'd created with their fanbase back in the day. Since then, be it toys, or comics/cartoons based on them, they haven't exactly pulled the kind of idiotic stunts superhero publishers are now notorious for in the years since that otherwise uninspired cartoon movie was aired in theaters back in 1986.

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"As Spike Witwicky gets devoured by Unicron...."

No, he was saved by his son, Daniel, at the last moment. Had a decent supporting role in the post-movie episodes.

Anyway, yes, the movie has its weaknesses, like having way too much mood whiplash for its own good, the usual animation/character errors -- the damaged Insecticons were reformatted into Galvatron's minions, until they weren't during the Planet of Junk battle, though, their cloning ability does mire the issue -- the bulk of the 84-85 television cast were swept away within the first 30 or so minutes to showcase the futuristic cast and the infamous "Unicron/Matrix never being mentioned/referenced in prior TF fiction until the movie itself" issue. It also has its strengths, too, like the Decepticons finally being the war machines they were meant to be, the epic mythos building, the introduction of popular characters like Springer/Arcee/Kup -- and not so much Hot Rod, but he got better -- good vocal performances, pretty animation and an awesome soundtrack.

Also, during the 90's, it was the only truly available Transformers home video product, so it was a lot of 90's era kids' first exposure to the concept. While FHE did produce official videotapes, they were made in the mid 80's and nearly impossible to find or buy. (And I was 2 when the series premiered in 84, which meant I really snapped up the Movie when I was in my early teens.) It helps explains the cult status, and the current DVD era continues the tradition.

That said, I agree about the toy-selling nature and how that backfired horribly, because Hasbro clearly underestimated audience attachment to even toy-based characters. (At least, Ron Friedman apparently understood this, even if he was out-ruled by mandates.) Nevertheless, it did seem that the movie was finally acknowledging "War is Hell" in regards to the Autobot/Decepticon War vs. the various skirmishes throughout Seasons 1-2. Combine that with the film's lesser censors, they figured to go for broke, in addition to transitioning to the newer toys. Plus, since the characters are robots, they figured they didn't need to hold back as much -- Bruce Timm's DCAU fare was the same way with its robotic characters, as well.

Commenting all this, as I do have a fondness toward the 86 film, but I don't hold any allusions to its flaws, either. I wouldn't say it was "uninspired," as it served its purpose, semi-unpleasant as it was, and still remains as a game-changer, 30 years later. Sometimes, when you're handed lemons, make lemonade, etc.

Yeah though the scene where the moon he was on was eaten by Unicorn happened 1/3 the way through and his rescue happened towards the end so it's easy to mistake that he didn't die. The movie wasn't bad at all for a kids movie in the 80's It was well animated and the story was epic. The death's gave it a impact that the TV show didn't have. It ended up changing the GI JOE movie (Duke was suppose to die but they added a 1 line offscreen "He's ok!" comment from one of the characters at the end.)

...do you like ANY sort of cartoon or is it just dreadful live-action that you adore?

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