The original 1984 Transformers cartoon (dubbed “Generation 1” or “G1” by fans) was very clearly and obviously created to sell toys. It was, frankly, a genius scheme to reverse-engineer a way to get kids invested in characters by creating a storyline around existing toys imported from various Japanese lines so they would be easier to sell in America. It never really aspired to be anything else, and any legacy that the cartoon itself has today is mostly due to the continued appeal of the toys or the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be 1986 animated movie.
But that wasn’t the case for its follow-up show, Beast Wars: Transformers, a CG-animated series from 1996 with aspirations that reached far beyond selling toys to impressionable children. It had story arcs, it had character arcs, and it maintained continuity with the G1 cartoon in a way that actually made it seem like it mattered beyond the toys that it sold. To put it simply, Beast Wars took the Transformers brand seriously, and now—after so many years of making Transformers fans suffer—the big live-action movies might be attempting to do the same thing.
Previous Transformers movies had half-hearted gestures toward G1 continuity—Autobots waging their battles to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons, that sort of thing—but with Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts, director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II), is diving straight into the Beast Wars legacy. His new film, which opens Friday with a cast that includes Anthony Ramos, original Optimus Prime voice actor Peter Cullen, Pete Davidson, and Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, introduces a faction of robots called Maximals, who turn into animals instead of cars and trucks and whatnot. They’re led by a gorilla robot called Optimus Primal, and the team includes a rhinoceros robot named Rhinox and a cheetah robot named Cheetor.
Beast Wars: Transformers | S01 E01 | FULL EPISODE | Animation | Transformers Official
Those are Beast Wars characters, and though it all definitely seems silly on paper, finally including them in the live-action universe feels like a signal to Transformers fans that they’re actually going to seriously engage with Transformers canon for the first time … just like Beast Wars did in the mid-’90s.
The show, a CG-animated cartoon from Mainframe Entertainment (creators of ReBoot), took place hundreds of years after the ’80s show and centered on a new robot war between a faction of good guys called Maximals and a faction of bad guys called Predacons. In the first episode, their two ships go through some sort of time warp and crash onto a largely barren planet that is gradually revealed to be a prehistoric Earth, and since there aren’t any cars or trucks around to transform into, the robots become gorillas and cheetahs and dinosaurs.
There’s no reason to take any of that any more seriously than the original show, but Beast Wars gradually snuck in themes of pacifism and spirituality and even star-crossed romance alongside its backdrop of robot toys trying to kill each other. Its characters grew and changed as the show went on, most notably a dinosaur robot called Dinobot who started as a bad guy, defected to the good guys, and then learned to empathize with the vulnerable proto-humans that had begun to try and find their place in this prehistoric world. Ask a Beast Wars fan about Dinobot’s death, where he heroically sacrifices himself to defend the early humans—thereby saving the future of our dopey species—and they still might get a tear in their eye.
But the most obvious example of the show taking Transformers seriously came in its second season, when the writers did the math and realized that the first episode of the G1 Transformers cartoon is about them crash-landing on prehistoric Earth and laying dormant in a volcano until the 1980s—meaning that the original Transformers are hanging around, unconscious, somewhere on this same planet during the events of Beast Wars. At the end of that season, the Predacons try to kill Optimus Prime and rewrite all of Transformers continuity so the bad guys win.
And that’s cool! Both because it’s a natural extension of the premise and because the way it’s handled on the show treats Optimus Prime and the other G1 Transformers with actual reverence. The camera hangs on certain characters for a moment, as if to say “check it out, it’s freaking Starscream,” and while it is definitely heavy-handed fan service, it also treats these characters as hugely important within this continuity and not just established names to check off a list.
Steven Caple Jr. definitely knows all of this. Back when Rise Of The Beasts was first announced, he made a point to note that he was a big fan of Beast Wars—he was born in 1988, making him too young to have really seen the original series when it aired but the perfect age to have been watching Beast Wars. He must be aware of the significance of these characters having Transformers continuity and he has to be aware that Beast Wars was good specifically because it respected its audience’s intelligence and their willingness to get on board with character arcs and relatively complex themes and big-swing continuity twists.
Caple Jr. being a Transformers fan, and specifically a Beast Wars fan, hopefully means he came to this movie with some awareness of how to tell a satisfying story about robots in disguise (as opposed to Bay’s complete and total lack of it). And it’s not a moment too soon, either: Transformers fans have already had to put up with their toy movies being bad, but now Barbie is coming out and it looks like a toy movie that will actually be really good, and that’s just heartbreaking. Everyone deserves to have their toy made into a good movie!
More from The A.V. Club