TRANSFORMERS: PRIME – DARKNESS RISING: Maximum Overdrive

Transformers: Prime – Darkness Rising (2010) – Starring Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Steven Blum, Jeffrey Combs, Ernie Hudson, Sumalee Montano, Kevin Michael Richardson, and Dwayne Johnson.

I haven’t seen the TRANSFORMERS: PRIME cartoon before. Heck, since I don’t have cable, I hadn’t even heard of it before the DVD release of DARKNESS RISING, the 5-episode mini-series that launched the most recent incarnation of the TRANSFORMERS franchise, showed up on Netflix.

I’ll take notice of it now.

DARKNESS RISING is a fantastic cartoon, expertly striking the right balance between being accessible to kids and engaging for adults. It’s got lots of love for old school TRANSFORMERS, yet it clearly moving in its own, exciting direction. I was a bit nervous, at first. I wasn’t thrilled with the computer-generated animation and there’s far too much emphasis on the human kids (of course, I pretty much want no humans in my TRANSFORMERS stories), but both of them grew on me to varying degrees.

While not the best look, PRIME nonetheless offers a clear, bright, consistent look. Unlike what happens far too often in the movies, it’s clear to tell the robots apart here. As the 5-part series unfolded, the animation grew on me enough that even if I didn’t come to love it, I certainly don’t hate it.

As for the kids …

Give me a moment.

Let’s talk Transformers first. There’s a small band of six Autobots on Earth: Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), Arcee (Sumalee Montano), Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs), Cliffjumper (Dwayne Johnson), Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson), and Bumblebee (hoots and whistles).

Actually, make that five Transformers because before the first action sequence is done with, Cliffjumper has been killed. I know. Killing a Transformer in a kids’ cartoon in the first episode! It sets a great tone for the series because it tells you right up front (much like the animated movie did) that actions here have consequences and that the stakes are high without the producers having a character repeatedly tell us that the stakes are high. That it’s Cliffjumper – or rather, that it’s Dwayne Johnson who gets offed just adds to the effect.

The Transformers are operating out of an abandoned United States military base in Nevada, which makes sense because it gives them a big facility in a non-high population area. They have a government liaison in Agent Fowler (Ernie Hudson) but he’s basically just there to bust their ball bearings. The Transformers aren’t working for/with the American government the way they are in the Michael Bay movies; instead, the vibe that Fowler puts off is of the “we don’t want you here but we’ll tolerate you as long as you stay in line” variety.

The mix of Autobots has clearly been chosen because of how they play off one another. Instead of randomly grabbing the most popular Transformers (or their personal favorites), either Hasbro or the producers (including Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) have assembled a superhero team. Optimus Prime is the wise leader, Rathchet is his second-in-command, Bulkhead is the muscle, Arcee is the young, semi-hotheaded soldier, and Bumblebee is the young, loyal soldier. This version of Bumblebee neither talks nor does that annoying “speaking through film clips” nonsense from the movie. Instead, he beeps and whistles. It might sound annoying, but it’s actually the best version of this character’s “voice,” yet.

There’s a lull in the Autobot/Decepticon hostilities, but that comes to an end when some Decepticons take Cliffjumper out and then reanimate him with “dark energon.” And where does dark energon come from?

Unicron.

F*cking Unicron!

It’s actually the blood of Unicron and it brings the dead back to life, turning them into animalistic robot zombies. Megatron has got a sample of it and intends to bring the dead on Cybertron (which is everyone on Cybertron because it’s a dead planet) back to life to serve as his army. It’s a pretty awesome plan. The final battle takes place on the Transformers’ space bridge and it feels decidedly epic.

Okay, let’s talk about the humans. Two of the three aren’t annoying so I’ll give the show credit for that, at least. Jack, Raf, and Miko are the kids, and each of them bonds with a specific Autobot. Jack gets Arcee, Raf gets Bumblebee, and Miko gets Bulkhead. What’s nice is that each of their relationships is a bit different. Miko loves being in the mix of things and so she annoys Bulkhead with her constant ability to stick with him when he enters dangerous situations. Raf is the typical little kid genius and his relationship with Bumblebee isn’t totally flushed out here. These two relationships are fine. It’s Jack’s relationship with Arcee that is the least effective.

Arcee is a bit of a hothead (plus she’s the most effected by Cliffjumper’s death) and Jack is a bit of a whiner. Where Miko is all, “Hanging out with robots is the best!”, Jack is a bit too angst-ridden. He wants out. He likes to complain. He leaves.

And then comes right back.

Ugh.

It’s my hope that he becomes more positive about all this as the show moves forward. And I’ll be checking it out when the DVDs come out later this year because DARKNESS RISING ends up being a pretty darn great cartoon. It’s not perfect but it is really good. It’s always great to hang out with Optimus again, of course, but Arcee ends up being the star of the show for me. She takes her anger and hurt at Cliffjumper’s death and first channels it into getting revenge but then ends up salving her hurt by bonding with Jack.

Which will hopefully make him less of a douche.

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