Kids' films get death all wrong. When Mufasa dies in The Lion King, it's hammily tragic; Simba doesn't understand and the music rises around the teary cub, reducing the susceptible sops in the audience to blubbering wrecks. When Littlefoot's mother bites it in The Land Before Time, it's a similar scene: orphaned offspring unable to comprehend what's happened, the soundtrack swelling tear ducts to spilling point. When Ellie's gone in Up? even I'll admit to having to suppress the lump in my throat.
I appreciate they're cartoons, but these deaths have too much noise to feel real. They're painting a skewed reality for kids: that, come closing time, there'll always be words to say, songs to be sung, or a great adventure to embark upon in somebody's memory. Staged events following ceremonial protocol. And for me, despite the best efforts of Disney and its assorted ilk, death has never resonated like that. Death is cold and emotionless, just the slightest bump in a narrative that doesn't stop to pay its respects.
I lost my grandmother on my father's side when I was at junior school, aged nine, on the day of my younger twin brothers' birthday. I can remember the police coming to the door. I remember my mother crying in the kitchen while kids cackled on, oblivious, in the living room. I can't picture my dad at the time, but he must've had to leave immediately, I guess. The next school day, I was asked if I wanted to go home, because of what had happened – that memory's clear as day, down to the exact place in the classroom I answered. I didn't. I wanted to be at school. Death was something that happens, that I can't change or have any influence on the repercussions of. My parents were in control of that department; it was better that I maintained.
I have my own children now, and the oldest has taken an interest in the vestiges of my own childhood. I've acquired DVDs of old cartoons over the years, and I was a big fan of Transformers in the 1980s – I collected the Marvel comics and annuals, played with the toys (Optimus Prime, Christmas 1985) and even had branded wallpaper up in my bedroom (just down one side, mind – nobody needs 360-degree Starscreams). I've got some episodes of the original animated series at home, nestled beside the current crop of cartoon favourites, and the 1986 animated movie, too. It's hardly a cinematic classic but, because I watched it on a loop once it'd received a home video release, I can still recall almost every line of dialogue. I wish I were joking.
'The Transformers: The Movie' – the faction leaders, Optimus Prime and Megatron, slug it out
While its plot steals liberally from the first Star Wars, The Transformers: The Movie still won't make much sense to most. There are giant robots that change into cars and planes and (somehow, impossibly) pistols and microscopes. And then they fight each other.
You probably already know this because you've seen Michael Bay's CGI-rich reboot of 2007 that grossed over $700m worldwide. Seven. Hundred. Million. Dollars. Its ancestor of 1986 made a fraction of that sum at the box office, and its story is utterly impenetrable in comparison to the one-boy-and-his-car, E.T.-with-fusion-cannons Spielberg-isms of Bay's blockbuster. It assumes you know who every character is before the movie starts. Before it begins to kill them off.
I've (re)watched The Movie with son number one a couple of times now, and it's helped me realise why I feel the way I do about death. I'm sincerely trying not to trivialise the passing of anyone close to me over the years, but the way the people behind The Movie approached death – the way that writer Ron Friedman and director Nelson Shin conveyed toy company Hasbro's requirement to quickly replace original favourites with fresher-faced newcomers – went against all the kid-friendly reasoning of cinema then and now.
It cut cast members back to the blackness from which they'd come without the slightest pause for reflection. The ties that bound us to break-time role-play revelry were calculatedly severed. We barely even got a chance to say goodbye.
'The Transformers: The Movie' – the death of Starscream
The Transformers: The Movie had its own grandstanding death scene. Indeed, it had a couple, as while others-of-that-age will certainly remember heroic leader of the (good guy) Autobots, Optimus Prime, going grey under the watchful eyes of a handful of newly introduced comrades, a bunch of other Generation 1ers came a cropper in ways that, looking at them now, are pretty shocking for primary school audiences.
Starscream, a key member of the (evil) Decepticon forces and a wannabe leader of their operations, is executed in graphic fashion by a reincarnated version of his superior Megatron, now named Galvatron. At the climax, the biggest of all the bads, the planet-eating Unicron (the final acting role of Orson Welles), claws at his own crippled body before exploding across the entire screen. He's reassembled before the credits role, granted (a cheap trick on our emotions), but Prime's temporary successor Ultra Magnus is blown apart at one point too.
'The Transformers: The Movie' – Ironhide and his crew is killed
I always liked the character Ironhide, a double-hard Autobot who'd beaten down enough 'Cons to write a triple-disc concept album about the inner workings of a Seeker. But he lasted all of five minutes in The Movie, as Megatron and his crew hijack a spaceship and slaughter the Autobots aboard. At least he got a line or two in the film before he bought it – neither the medic Ratchet nor Prime's strategic advisor Prowl managed so much. Both were first-wave characters kids like me loved, and both went down like smoking stacks of useless slag, the latter only opening his mouth in a silent scream of defeat. Death is dealt with instant effect, and the first to drop in the barely fleeting firefight is called Brawn, for fuck's sake. Brawn.
The Decepticons travel to Earth, where they hope to spring a surprise assault on the Autobots stationed there. It doesn't quite go to plan as Judd Nelson's Hot Rod and his human pal Daniel spot them, triggering a battle that writes out more cherished characters – but this time, we don't even see how they die. And isn't this how we experience death in our own lives, usually? Through the after-effects, experiencing the shock and the sadness but rarely witnessing the moment that stirs such feelings.
Wheeljack, the first Transformer to appear in the television series and a mainstay up until the movie, is shown blasted to death beside another Generation 1 Autobot, Windcharger. Several of their companions are seen on screen just prior to the Decepticons launching their attack, but never again, including Huffer (confirmed dead in a later episode), while others aren't even afforded that respect: the ends of Red Alert and Trailbreaker were left on unanimated storyboards. The 'Cons lost personnel in the course of the film, too: the awesomely analytical Shockwave is written out when Unicron attacks the Transformers' homeworld of Cybertron (only verified in 2007's IDW movie adaptation!), while the same moons-munching menace turns a trio of jets into a light meal.
'The Transformers: The Movie' – opening scene
The hard reality of death is served cruelly cold to children who, caught up in the demise of Optimus Prime, could be forgiven for skimming over the message laid down amid the stock-clearing corporate machinations: that you can mean everything to someone only to disappear forever in a final heartbeat, out of both sight and mind. But it's clear to me, now, that The Transformers: The Movie is darker than any film aimed at a comparable audience has a right to be – that its opening scene, which depicts the destruction of an entire planet, children and all, sets something of a precedent. Unnamed robots are melted down in the guts of a much bigger one. Slavery is rife on a bizarre world ruled by five-faced, egg-shaped overlords. There's only one robot designated as female and countless appendage-waggling drones chasing after her. As bleak as its multiple murders are, this movie explores some truly desperate themes beyond the piled-high bodies.
But still, nobody cries for Huffer. Shockwave isn't mourned. Windcharger isn't avenged. There's no heroic theme playing as Wheeljack has his spark shot out of existence – or if there is, we don't get to hear it, instead treated to a bunch of cassette tapes duking it out while Mr Microscope soils his steely kecks. These are the deaths that matter in The Transformers: The Movie, the ones that aren't ultimately relevant to a much bigger picture, and they've helped to shape my own relationship with mortality. I see that now, watching with my kid, him asking all the questions while I mouth lines I've had memorised since I was six or seven. "'Til all are one," are the movie's final words, and there's only one place where we share a common state. And you can bet we're all going there, with or without a touching something recited in the presence of our colourless corpse.
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