Chances are that if you were born in the 90s, you know the Transformers well and have probably even seen the 80s animated movie. But you may not have heard of the GoBots, who time has not been so kind to. Back in 1986, though, The GoBots were a serious contender in the toy world, and this theatrical feature, released several months prior to the Transformers film, came on the back of a television series, Challenge of the GoBots. Personally, I think I had as many GoBot and Rock Lord toys as I did Transformers, and this VHS tape was as well-loved as Transformers the Movie’s.
Even if this was the Digimon to Tranformers’ Pokémon, though, that does not mean it ought to be dismissed. I still have an affection for this film, even if it was not a stellar success, meaning that by 1987, the Transformers’ company Hasbro absorbed the Tonka GoBots lines (certain of the characters later cropping up in Transformers comics) and only a few months later the distribution company was bust. Since then, the GoBots have largely been seen as a poor imitation of Transformers and vastly inferior – c’mon, the commander of the good guys is called ‘Leader-1’ – and it’s not hard to find some of the toys and still frames of this animation hilariously bad, but the distance isn’t so very huge as all that.
I am admittedly biased. Rewatching this for the first time since I was seven or eight, I could still remember lines before they came, plot twists and the scenes to come. I could still remember my dislike for Scooter, how brilliant Crasher’s laugh is and how I always felt Marble to be oddly effeminate. I remember my admiration for Cy-Kill seeing through Solitaire’s deception, and finding the idea of being executed in the Tumbler genuinely chilling. I even remembered how certain toys felt to hold and to transform just by looking at their onscreen counterparts. There is much to cringe at, including dreadful transformation sequences from a motorcycle being formed by the robot just sort of bending forward to rock lords who just squat; Scooter having his face visible even in vehicle mode; and, to be honest, the whole concept of humanoids transforming into rocks - and Hasbro definitely had better ideas of making things look cool. But I like this film.
The plot is simple, working only because it builds on an established cast: there are two factions of good guys and bad guys. A rock lord goes to request help from the GoBots with a war between the two factions, but the evil GoBots hear of it, kidnap the ambassador and go to offer their services – of course intending all along to seize the ultimate prize for themselves. The prize is a sceptre of power, rather confusingly supposed to require all the lesser sceptres but in the end being forged from all but one - and proves not to be much of a threat at all, really - but what the story is really about is the journey and cooperation.
With some celebrity voices – chiefly Roddy McDowall and the girl from Superman, along with the voices of both Optimus Prime and Megatron from Transformers, in roles very different from those – the acting is over the top but has its charm, and some performances are genuinely strong. The animation is classic Hanna-Barbera, and if the cast being mostly made up of robots designed in Japan obscures this slightly, close-ups of faces, explosions and that signature awkward way of having the background scrolling along when the imagined camera dollys with characters in motion soon betray the truth.
It’s in many ways awful. Lots of bad designs, silly dialogue, a flimsy plot and characters hard to empathise with. Its charm is certainly in part ironic. But this film is a whole lot of fun, very silly and an indelible part of my childhood. A cult classic.