'Transformers': Making Us Feel Like Kids Again

For the last 10 million years, give or take a millennium, an epic battle between good and evil has raged across the universe. In one corner, the noble forces of the "Autobots," led by "Optimus Prime." In the other corner, the devious army of the "Decepticons," led by the sinister "Megatron."

On their home planet of Cybertron, the two factions fought for millions of years before eventually bringing their fight to Earth.

The intergalactic war of "Transformers" spilled onto our planet in 1984 in the form of a hit cartoon series, and on July 3, it will explode onto screens at movie theaters across the country. Brought to life by director Michael Bay, and executive producer Steve Spielberg, at least one lucky movie-goer who's seen the movie calls it the birth of "another language" in filmmaking.

Defined by their ability to take on and "transform" into different vehicles, animals, devices and even dinosaurs to hide their robotic alien identities, the "Transformers" were one of the biggest boy-toy crazes of the mid-1980s and beyond.

It may not mean much to their kids, but for their parents, names like "Optimus Prime" conjure up warm and fuzzy memories of Saturday morning cartoons and playing alone in your room with toys instead of video games.

Though the film's PG-13 rating will certainly drive young people to the theaters, grown men -- and even a few women -- are already buying up tickets across the country, evidence that the fans never went away, they just got older.

Saturday Morning Was Ours

"I was one of those kids who early on in life just couldn't sleep later than six o'clock in the morning, so I would get up and be glued to 'Transformers' on TV," says Ted Nista, a 25-year-old clerk at a pharmacy in Carmel, Calif., and an aspiring filmmaker.

Back when Saturday morning still belonged to kids, children across the country would sneak out of bed in the wee hours, often before mom and dad had finished sleeping off the work week, and plop down in front of the TV to enjoy hours of cartoons.

"In those days, there was really only one place that was meant for you and that was Saturday morning," says Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "This was the ghetto for kids."

Duking it out with iconic programs like "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," "Thundercats" and "G.I. Joe" for animated supremacy, "The Transformers" were at the top of the heap during what was one of the last great generations of Saturday morning cartoons.

"Looking back on it with older eyes, some of it seems pretty corny, but the story, the voice acting -- Peter Cullen [voice of Optimus Prime] who was just so great that they brought him back for the new film ? it was just great," says Zach Oat, editor for ToyFare magazine and a life-long "Transformers" fan. "I was a big fan, watched the cartoon every day as a kid."

Now, 20 years later, Oat and millions of others who grew up with "The Transformers" are getting a chance to see a piece of their childhood live and breathe on the big screen in spectacular fashion.

Though the film's story line deviates significantly from that of the cartoon, at a recent screening in New York, with few exceptions, filmgoers were cheering and laughing throughout most of the movie.

With the thrill of watching "Transformers" come to life, there also comes a somewhat melancholy reminder of years past.

Thompson says it's nostalgia. "The Transformers" bring out "the warm feeling of footy pajamas and staying home from school on a snow day" he says about those who grew up with the franchise.

"But that may be the last generation that really feels that because Saturday morning got kind of deconstructed. "And not only has TV changed, Saturday itself has changed ? between soccer practice and ballet and all of these planned things kids have to do these days."

At some point, almost simultaneous to the end of the "Transformers" craze, action figures and other toys began another epic battle that's still raging, the fight to recapture kids' imagination from the expanding reach of video games.

While "Transformers" has continued to change and evolve to attract young people over the years -- there have been many incarnations of the characters and various story lines since 1984 -- they were always fighting an uphill battle against the growing ubiquity of home game systems like 1985's Nintendo Entertainment System.

"After 'Transformers' started to die down, 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' started to spring up and that was a huge franchise and that sort of segued into the 'Power Rangers,'" Oat points out. "But the toy industry has steadily been losing ground and it seems like all the toy companies are looking for the next great electronic toy to try and compete."

As what may be a sign of the times and maybe a little bit of irony, the new live-action "Transformers" movie is also a console video game made by Activision in which players fight and explore as "Transformers" following an altered version of the movie's events.

Rock Em' Sock Em' Robots

Unbeknownst to many, "Transformers" didn't start out as a television show. At the time "transforming" toys were all the rage in Japan and Hasbro wisely bought up a few of those toy lines and unified them into the "Transformers" brand for the U.S.

From their, the company wisely launched one of the most successful toy lines and intellectual properties of all time.

"Back in 1984, Hasbro, in association with Sunbow Productions, produced 'The Transformer' TV series, which now is referred to as 'Generation 1,'" explained Samantha Lomow, global vice president of marketing at Hasbro for the "Transformers" brand.

But many "Transformers" fans may remember that they weren't the only transforming robots on the block.

The doomed "Gobots," a Tonka property at the time, made the bold but ultimately failed effort to dominate the space. As a result, school yards nationwide were split into two camps: "Gobot" fans and "Transformer" fans. You couldn't have it both ways.

"Before the 'Transforms' cartoon, 'Gobots' were out in stores, and I think there were some kids that committed to the 'Gobots,' and once you had 20 or 30 of them, you kind of had to stick to your guns," says Oat. "The 'Gobots' did eventually get their own cartoon, but it doesn't matter that you have a cartoon if it's bad."

Though the fickle appetites of elementary school kids and preteens could have made the battle a tossup, most think the "Transformers" won out simply because it was better.

"The tie-ins were better. It was a superior presentation, and to some extent, 'Gobots' were already referring to a stodgy and old idea: a robot," Thompson says. "The 'Transformer,' I think, were really more on the cutting edge of it's time."

In 1991 Hasbro bought the "Gobots" brand from Tonka and absorbed it into the "Transformer" line.

Like a Kid Again

Despite many peaks and valleys in the last 20 years of "Transformers," the franchise has been able to weather it all, succeeding in a market where so many others have failed or simply fallen off the map.

Lomow attributes the "Transformers" success to the constantly changing story line and the magic of a universe where nothing is as it seems. It's why "More Than Meets the Eye" is a catch phrase used by the "Transformers'"

Of course, the breadth of marketing surrounding the franchise couldn't hurt either.

"'Transformers has a very deep history and the lore is very rich, so we continue to keep that fantasy alive through entertainment; through animated series, through a publishing program and great characters and story lines," she says.

As for why it's taken two decades to get a live-action "Transformers" movie made -- an animated version, "The Transformers: The Movie," was released in 1986. The answer is simple: technology.

"The technology has finally caught up and the time was right for the 'Transformers' to be re-created on the silver screen in a realistic and exciting way," Lomow says.

Whether nostalgia is enough to turn a multimillion dollar motion picture into a summer blockbuster remains to be seen. Regardless, the film's release and the sudden kickup of all things "Transformers" is making a lot of grown-ups feel like kids again.