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Transformers: Keep On Truckin'

Rock em sock em robot (DreamWorks LLC/Paramount)

Despite what some are saying, it really isn’t a huge deal that, in his first live-action incarnation, heroic truck-robot Optimus Prime has a new paint job and a moving mouth under that face shield of his. Considering that he became a giant mechanical gorilla in at least one cartoon incarnation, such cosmetic changes are minor. Insisting that Transformers adhere faithfully to the canon of the 1984–’87 animated television series is silly, considering that (a) the series regularly ignored its own continuity anyway, and (b) it featured huge gaps in logic that were obvious even to kids at the time, like: Where does Optimus’ truck-trailer disappear to when he transforms? What possible benefit is there for Megatron, a giant robot with a huge blaster on his arm, to shrink down into a tiny handgun? Why were almost none of the characters drawn in scale with each other? And how about that technologically advanced, far-future year of 2005?

Like the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie before it, Transformers tells its story through the eyes of a pair of teenagers who prove integral to an interstellar battle that happens to touch down on Earth — a slightly less offensive choice here, since one of these teens, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), actually was a major character in the cartoon. It’s not worth sweating the plot details much on this, beyond what we’re told up-front: Something called the Allspark Cube, which is basically the Genesis device from Star Trek II, is sought by giant robots from space, and apparently hidden somewhere on Earth. Unfortunately for us, the evil Decepticons get here before the heroic Autobots can stop them from wreaking havoc.

So there’s that, but then at least a third of the movie is about Sam trying to get a cool car so he can impress high-school hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox). Gotta get laid before the world ends, y’know. Fortunately for him, his bitchin’ new Camaro turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, who is unable to speak in this movie, possibly as karmic payback for infamously uttering the sole curse word in the 1986 Transformers animated feature film.

Meanwhile, Decepticons attack a U.S. military base in the Middle East and infiltrate Air Force One, where it is implied, though not stated outright, that the president is still a familiar dim-bulb Texan. Fortunately, Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight) may look like Donald Rumsfeld, but he’s actually semi-competent, and holds back from launching World War III. Somewhere, deep in the Defense Department files, is a project code named “Iceman” — it seems Megatron was the first Transformer to arrive, back in the Hoover administration, but was frozen in Arctic ice shortly after locating the coordinates of the Allspark. Hmmm, think he’ll stay frozen the whole movie?

Essentially, what we’ve got here is a whole lot of maneuvering designed to facilitate a massive robot brawl on the streets of downtown L.A., which is pretending to be another city (“Mission City,” or something like that — it’s not important). Above all, Transformers is the biggest-budget kaiju movie of all time, which, for those who don’t speak Japanese or Nerd-ish, means one of those Godzilla Versus Other Monster-Suit Guys Trashing Mini-Tokyo flicks. Only with robots, and what’s not to like about that?

Perhaps a few things, if you’re a stickler for any semblance of reality, but director Michael Bay seems to have realized that there wasn’t any point in playing things too seriously — he has an Aussie-accented blond bombshell (Rachael Taylor) and Anthony Anderson playing the world’s greatest hackers, which sorta tells you what kind of tone to expect. There’s a Chihuahua named Mojo who wears a cast on his leg, and in one scene, Bumblebee actually takes a leak all over John Turturro.

Even if you accept the notion of robots from the planet Cybertron who can scan cars and then imitate them, a few things don’t quite add up. For instance, what the hell is Scorponok copying — did he scan a scorpion, and somehow misinterpret the data? A giant mechanical bug ain’t exactly a robot in disguise. And why would a robot from a planet of all-mechanical beings have a name like Bonecrusher?

The movie’s biggest misstep is a complete lack of the classic Transformers theme song. How do you not use the coolest ’80s toyline-turned-cartoon music ever? To add insult to injury, there’s a techno version of the theme on the soundtrack CD, but nowhere in the movie. And when the plot calls for a cheesy power ballad, the opportunity is also passed up to use “The Touch,” the notoriously inappropriate tune used in the animated movie when Optimus and Megatron fight to the death. For such omissions, Bay needs to briefly have his head transformed into a punching bag.

Those sore points aside, the movie rocks: Optimus is the kiddie icon of old, still proudly voiced by Peter Cullen, who nowadays sounds like a raspy Adam West. Megatron gets the biggest makeover, now looking like Power Rangers villain Lord Zedd, and voiced so unrecognizably by Hugo Weaving that original voice actor Frank Welker could have just as easily done it. If you analyze the new look closely, it seems that Meg’s face is now shaped like the Decepticon emblem: clever!

It’s nice to hear the old transformation sound at least once, and to get a brief bit of interplay between Starscream and Megatron; but for my money, the best nod to the source material is a moment set inside a giant military base, where all the adult military types are confused by what they see in front of them. Sam steps forward and proudly states, “That’s Megatron. He’s the leader of the Decepticons.”

As kids, how many of us said the exact same thing to our parents?

TRANSFORMERS | Directed by MICHAEL BAY | Written by ROBERTO ORCI and ALEX KURTZMAN, from a story by JOHN ROGERS, ORCI and KURTZMAN, based on Hasbro’s Transformers action figures | Produced by LORENZO DI BONAVENTURA, TOM DESANTO, DON MURPHY and IAN BRYCE | Released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures | Citywide