Sunday, June 29, 2008

Transformers as literature?

Ever seen the Transformers cartoon movie from 1986? I did. Forgive me if I date myself or throw out too many references that the uninitiated won't get.

I was thinking about it tonight (ok, ok, I admit I watched it for the 43,455th time) and realized how intensely violent the movie is.... I mean, it's sheer carnage everywhere, and it almost never stops for the whole 90-minute show. Most of the Autobots and Decepticons I'd seen on a daily basis for the last two years of devotedly watching the cartoon got killed, some in deciedly gruesome ways-- Ironhide dies from an execution-style shot to the back of the head. Starscream gets incinerated. Optimus Prime dies on the operating table. Whole planets get wiped out, and the survivors fed to Sharktacons or thrown into acid pits and melted, both of which you get to watch. Ultra Magnus says 'dammit,' which was, at that point, the first obscenity I had ever heard on television.

This is heavy stuff when you're nine years old. Up to that point, having grown up on thoroughly-sanitized, bowdlerized, and wholesomeificated (I think I just created a new word) American children's programming, you took certain things as ineffable. The good guys won. There was a lot of shouting and explosions and some drama, but everyone survived.

The Transformers movie changed that, and suddenly the world became a bit darker and less certain. Suddenly the good guys DIDN'T always win, and everyone didn't just get up and have their arms and legs welded back on. It was one small step towards adulthood.

On the whole, I think this movie had more of a lasting impact on me than most of elementary school, which probably says a lot about the US educational system. From the standpoint of appreciation of literature, for example, I had (and still have) nothing but contempt for The Indian in the Cupboard or the Phantom Tollbooth, but I still mutter the defiant "spare me this mockery of justice" line under my breath when I'm feeling wronged, because I think it speaks much more directly to the human (or alien robot) condition than a story about a magic cupboard that brings dolls to life. The fact that the line was delivered by a character who had just seen his planet being eaten, and who threw it into the teeth of beings who were about to sentence him to death, just added weight to it. That is pathos one does not get from Louisa May Alcott or Judy Blume.

The problem with most children's literature, I contend, is that it is mostly written by people who assume children to be naive, stupid, and in need of being cushioned from reality, and who write the books accordingly.

From the point of a positive role model, on the other hand, it was hard to find a better one on TV at that time than Optimus Prime. Leadership, charisma, nobility, self-sacrifice, and putting the needs of the many ahead of his own-- these are traits you don't often find in cartoon characters. How much does it say about me that my two biggest childhood role models were a space pirate and a giant alien robot that transformed into a truck?

Just as a side note...

It's still a bit of a surprise to me that the great Orson Welles' last role was in this movie... were irony not passe, I would say it's ironic that the guy who gave us Citizen Kane, the 1938 War of the Worlds radio performance, and Chimes at Midnight went out with, as his last credit, voice-acting a giant planet that turned into a robot and ate other planets.

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