Such Heroic Nonsense – The Transformers: The Movie (1986) 4K Ultra HD

I have long since lost count of how many times I’ve watched the 1986 animated The Transformers: The Movie in my life. A pivotal part of my childhood, I know it practically backwards and forwards, and assumed it could hold no further surprises for me. However, the chance to sit with my 8-year-old son as he experienced it for the first time proved to be a delight in itself.

One of my boys has recently gotten into The Transformers in a big way. He just finished bingeing the first two seasons (65 episodes) of the 1980s cartoon on Tubi. The movie follows chronologically after that point, and is required viewing before progressing onto Season 3. Although I warned him that the movie would make some major changes to the storyline, I held back from spoiling anything specific. I was excited to watch with him, to see how well (if at all) his reaction would mirror my own when I first saw it in the theater at age 12.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) - Hot Rod & Kup
Title:The Transformers: The Movie
Year of Release: 1986
Director: Nelson Shin
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

(Forgive the spoilers I’m about to drop, but would you really be reading a review of The Transformers: The Movie at this point if it weren’t already near and dear to your own heart? If you want a traditional review with a plot synopsis and all that, read some of my previous reviews of the film, which I’ll link in the next section.)

As much as I’ve grown to adore The Transformers: The Movie over time, I’ll be the first to admit that the film is a mess. My younger self walked out of the theater that afternoon in August of 1986 confounded by what I’d just seen, in total disbelief at some of the story choices that occurred in it. Years of maturing and numerous repeat viewings on television and home video would be required before I’d fully come to terms with it.

In countless ways, the movie – and by extension, its writers, producers, and director – are bafflingly tone deaf to what Transformers fans wanted out the first big-screen adventure based on their favorite cartoon. As an adult now, I understand that the decision to kill off almost all the characters from the cartoon (dismissively so, in most cases) within the first half hour was driven by a cynical corporate marketing strategy to redirect attention away from older toys no longer in distribution over to the new batch of plastic merchandise hitting store shelves. That didn’t register with me as a kid. I was heartbroken watching so many major characters I loved written off with little fanfare, in ways that didn’t even make logical sense.

An Autobot warrior like Ironhide had survived countless battles against the Decepticons in the cartoon, yet he and a bunch of his friends get snuffed out in a minor skirmish here, barely putting up any defense. Of the on-screen carnage, only Autobot leader Optimus Prime gets a proper, worthy death scene with enough time and compassion to help fans deal with the loss.

Compounding the problem, because my mother was certainly not about to sit through this silly cartoon movie with me, I didn’t have a grown-up to help me process any of this in 1986. I was left to cope with that trauma – and, yes, something like this is traumatic for a child invested in the story – on my own. I wasn’t going to let that happen to my own son. I was there beside him the whole time and we had a long talk about it afterward.

For his part, my son was indeed shocked as the death toll started. When Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl, and Brawn get taken out early on, he turned to me with a confused look and asked if we’d see them again. That’s a reasonable question. Those characters regularly took more damage in the cartoon and always got repaired afterward. But no, that’s the end of them. Optimus Prime’s death hit him pretty hard, as it was meant to. He also struggled to understand the point of Decepticon leader Megatron getting recycled into new character Galvatron, when original Megatron was way more interesting.

At the same time, he was able to enjoy the more fun parts of the movie, including all the epic action scenes and the music. (The movie has so many songs blaring over critical scenes that it’s practically a musical.) He liked a number of the newly introduced characters, was impressed by imposing new villain Unicron, and followed the plot closely. He let out a big laugh when Grimlock the dim-witted Dinobot (one of the few original characters to survive the whole thing) eagerly settled in to listen to grizzled veteran Kup tell one of his famous war stories.

In our discussion later, we talked through all the parts that he liked, the parts that disappointed him, and the parts he simply didn’t understand. He said he liked the movie overall, but it was clear to me that he has mixed feelings about it, even if he can’t fully articulate them yet. That’s a totally valid reaction that I’ve had myself. This movie can really put Transformers fans through an emotional wringer. I expect that, with more viewings, he’ll warm up to it, as I did.

I almost can’t wait until the day, some years from now when he’s a much savvier cinephile with some knowledge of classic films under his belt, that I’ll get to reveal to him how The Transformers: The Movie was also the final screen performance for the legendary Orson Welles. That trivia won’t mean anything to him right now, but one day it will blow his mind.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) - Orson Welles plays a planet

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

The home video distribution rights to The Transformers: The Movie have changed hands a bunch of times over the years, and every new label that gets hold of it has its own ideas for what the movie is supposed to look like. I’ve previously reviewed most editions of the film in the video disc era, from Laserdisc to DVD and Blu-ray. No two of them look quite the same. Key differences in presentation include the aspect ratio, contrast, and especially colors. None has ever been fully satisfying.

The film is currently under the ownership of Hasbro Studios, which licensed it to Shout! Factory for a 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray in 2016 that was promoted as being “a new 4K transfer.” Shout! Factory still holds the license, but didn’t put out a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray until 2021, sold in both regular keepcase packaging or a fancier SteelBook with a handful of art cards. I bought the latter.

The 2016 Blu-ray edition contained two distinct video transfers for the movie on separate discs, one in widescreen 1.85:1 as the film originally played in theaters and another in “full-frame” 4:3 as it was shown on television and VHS. Comparing the two, the full-frame version has more image at the top and bottom of the frame but slightly less on the sides.

The 4K Ultra HD disc is only presented in widescreen. However, the full-frame version is included as a regular Blu-ray disc in the SteelBook case. If you want the widescreen version on Blu-ray, you still need to buy that separately.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) Megatron comparison full-frameThe Transformers: The Movie (1986) Megatron comparison widescreen

The Ultra HD appears to come from the same master as the 2016 widescreen Blu-ray. Both have a lot of minor dirt, scratches, and other imperfections on the film elements that are mostly forgivable. The movie’s animation has never really had 4K worth of detail, so the 4K version doesn’t provide much of an uptick there. Mainly what you get is better resolved grain, which can be a mixed blessing, especially in animation.

In this case, the primary benefit of Ultra HD is the new High Dynamic Range grade, which brings a major improvement in contrast. The 2016 Blu-ray had elevated black levels, causing outer space scenes to look milky gray. Those scenes are much better here. While I still wouldn’t call the black floor inky, it no longer looks washed-out. Meanwhile, bright highlights such as laser blasts, explosions, and the glint of light off the tip of Optimus Prime’s rifle pop nicely, without looking unnatural or overbearing. The HDR grading is well done and worth upgrading for.

In general, colors are also richer and more appealing than the Blu-ray. That said, Hot Rod still looks pink. I know that technicians who worked on the master have argued that this is the most correct coloring for the character, but I continue to have doubts about it. The toy was red, and the character was also a deeper maroon in the following season of the TV cartoon. It seems highly unlikely that any toy company executive in the 1980s would have intended for a boys’ toy of a male character to be colored pink. The culture at the time would never have accepted that. Even the artwork on the SteelBook is more maroon than pink.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) 4K Ultra HD SteelBook

Just as the Blu-ray did, the Ultra HD offers the movie’s soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0 options. The disc defaults to 2.0 (presumably meant to represent the theatrical mix), but I marginally prefer the 5.1 version. In truth, both sound lousy. The movie’s soundtrack has always sounded awful. It has no dynamic range at all. The volume of sound effects collapses down to nothing during the action scenes. This stems back to the source and has always been a problem with the movie, so I can’t blame Shout! Factory for it. Still, it remains disappointing.

The only bonus feature on the UHD disc is an audio commentary by director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille, and star Susan Blu (Arcee). The rest of the supplements are found on the Blu-ray disc. These include a 47-minute retrospective documentary, a handful of short featurettes, and some trailers.

Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

5 thoughts on “Such Heroic Nonsense – The Transformers: The Movie (1986) 4K Ultra HD

  1. “… but would you really be reading a review of The Transformers: The Movie at this point if it weren’t already near and dear to your own heart?” haha, that would be me. Never seen the show or the movie, but as a fan of Josh Zyber, I just read all his articles.


  2. I highly recommend watching Secret Galaxy (formerly Toy Galaxy)’s YouTube video on the history of this movie. I never saw it as a kid, but I am still scarred thinking Optimus was going to die in S1 of the series when he went tumbling off a cliff in truck form. Appreciate the deep dive you take into the home video history of these titles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m thrilled you got the SteelBook, Josh.

    I was actually thinking of you when I stumbled across my copy at Target. I literally thought, “I hope Zyber knows about this…” when I shouldered my way past another movie dork towards the copy on the shelf.

    I have two SteelBooks of this movie now, and I don’t regret getting either one of them; both look fantastic.

    I might have to watch this tonight…as that’s what grown, middle-aged men do on a Saturday night.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have the prior Blu-ray SteelBook from Shout! Factory as well. I’ll be keeping that around for the widescreen transfer on regular Blu-ray. I needed that the other day so my son could rewatch the movie in the living room. Unfortunately, it’s not available on any of our free or subscription streaming services.


  4. I’m glad your kid got to see it; watching it for the first time is almost a rite of passage for a Transformers fan.

    I will say I was stoked to see it and many other 4K SteelBooks on the shelves at Target. I picked up “1917”, “How To Train Your Dragon”, “E. T.”, and a few others a while back. It was pretty much Heaven.

    Speaking of SteelBooks, Zavvi has a bunch of Mondo ones for the Marvel movies (yes…I purposefully avoided alliteration overload) up for preorder. I felt it was my civic duty to let the readers here know about them.

    They aren’t my bag, Baby, but I thought others might want to know.


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