Saturday, July 04, 2009

Not Enough Explosions If You Ask Me

On principle I dislike the 1980s Transformers and GI Joe cartoons. Not because they were in reality little more than infomercials pushing a line of cheap toys but because the makers intentionally stifled creativity. A kid was handed a set of toys complete with canonical back story and told to play. There were the good guys and the ugly, evil, weaselly, terrorist bad guys. The toys were specifically designed to leave little room for the imagination. Any kid I knew who had those toys typically became bored with them in about five minutes.

The original GI Joe toys were patriotic heroes, sure, but that is as far as it went. You bought a Joe and then as the owner you did with it what you wanted, put him into whatever scenario you could think of during play. Since every kid in the neighborhood had one it was just a matter of deciding who would be the "losing" side when it was time to go home for dinner when the streetlights came on. Sometimes my doll wasn't even a soldier. On occasion he'd be wrapped in foil and frozen in a block of ice that I allowed to slowly melt in the backyard over a day or two. The idea was that my Joe was an astronaut who crash landed on a mysterious, hostile alien planet and had to use his wits to survive after he came out of suspended animation. I didn't read a lot of Dick and Jane as a kid. The majority of my reading was from old SF novels and pulp adventure stories.

Not that kids of the 80s and later don't do with their toys whatever they want, but in that era the option was designed out and since the figures had little or no articulation there was no naturally organic way to play with them other than in the way the maker intended. One aspect of toys that is the bane of anyone manufacturing one is that often the child will get hours of fun not from the plaything itself but from the cardboard box it arrived in. Companies know this and dream of the day a toy will fascinate a child as much as the discarded packaging. Companies have also over the last several decades continually designed themselves farther and farther away from the concept of a toy that will continually capture the imagination and dollars from the parental pockets.

That said I don't really dislike the Transformers films. They are far enough away from the original idea of the cartoon series to interest a new audience while not totally alienating the old one. I liked the second film more than the first in spite of the ill-considered inclusion of the Ghetto-Bots and the blatant exploitation of females, but then the creative team was unashamedly going right for the core demographic of young males. From what I saw of most of the audience they were thoroughly enjoying every scene with Megan Fox, the blond Megan Fox clone and wise-cracking robots blowing stuff up. The story, such as it was, made sense and continued ideas put forth in the initial film. I'm one of those who are pretty happy to get any science fiction films at all and since the best SF on television right now seems to be contained in commercials for cars and juice box drinks I was pretty satisfied with the movie as a whole. There was enough there to allow a viewer to read into scenes and expect there is a wider universe to the Transformers saga without having to explain and spell out each and every little thing like the audience is full of six year old children who don't get a sight gag in an old Warner Bros. cartoon unless it is repeated two to three times.

Many critics have blasted Michael Bay for making a film that is nothing but explosions, breasts and possibly exploding breasts. But then what one expect a war between giant robots with no regard for the human ants under their feet to look like? I left the theater surprised there were only a million explosions instead of a gajillion.

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