Review: Celebrate 25 years with the complete Transformers

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

When it comes to nostalgia, less is probably more—at least if you want to preserve it. Having spent the last week or so watching episodes of cartoon series that were near and dear to yours truly as a child, I can't overestimate the value of not revisiting all of the stuff that was once meaningful, because more often than not, you're disappointed to discover that what was once truly great is now, at best, a lackluster staple or distraction out of one's past.

Following their release of The Complete First Season on DVD, which by comparison feels like a dipped toe in deep waters, Shout! Factory has collected the rest of the series into one massive boxed set, dubbed the 25th Anniversary "Matrix of Leadership" Edition. But 16 discs, 25 years and 98 episodes later, it remains to be seen whether Transformers is a perfect example of something that's far better when relegated to memory lane, or still superior entertainment when it's re-examined decades later.

Much like the simultaneously-released 17-disc G.I. Joe boxed set, what stands out most is the way in which the show progressed during its broadcast run, particularly since it didn't really evolve. Rather, the series accumulated new characters while streamlining and perfecting its formulas, adding locales and scenarios almost mathematically and without deepening the show's mythology. Suffice it to say that some readers will no doubt champion the post-Transformers: The Movie era as a renaissance given its genesis of characters like the Quintessons, but these adversaries were no more successful or complex than their Decepticon predecessors (or at the very least they, didn't have a substantially-better victory-to-defeat ratio). Indeed, the most telling indication of the show creators' desperation was a two-part story bringing Optimus Prime back to life, which qualifies as one of the most crass reversals in the era's history given the enormous impact his death had on fans of the series at that time.

That said, Transformers is not without its charms, and those are more readily apparent in a format like that of this boxed set where viewers can see both where the show started and ended. Though the battles were seldom truly inspired, they were at once violent and completely safe, owing a considerable debt to the fact that the robots didn't bleed and could be beaten all to hell in ways that human characters couldn't. As a result, there were a number of epic conflicts over the course of the series' 98 episodes, although the longest stretch of momentum (and biggest build-up) was during Season Two, which not only featured the most episodes (48 compared to Season One's 16 and Seasons Three and Four's 33) but paid off with the release of The Movie in 1986.

In our review of the Complete First Season, much was made of the comparison between the transfers of episodes by Shout! and the series' former distributor, Rhino. It should be noted that the Rhino sets had two big problems, consistency and accuracy: The image quality from one episode to the next was sometimes wildly uneven, and in several cases characters and scenes were colored incorrectly from one scene or even one shot to the next. But Rhino also had access to at least some of the original animation cels, and as a result when their images were cleaner and clearer, they were substantially so because the remastering process was applied directly to the artwork as opposed to recorded tapes, which themselves often suffer from quality degradation.

Consequently, the animation in this set (and all of Shout!'s sets) is more consistent, but it is not always better than all previous versions. In which case, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference what viewers require—or in some cases, demand—as a standard of quality: images are rendered somewhat softly, but the color quality is good, and thankfully characters look the same throughout every sequence in which they appear. Meanwhile, basic two-channel stereo soundtracks are provided for all of the episodes, so even though you won't be shattering windows or scaring neighbors with the audio presentation, it more than does the job of aurally augmenting the on screen action.

The packaging of the set is probably its biggest selling point, since it looks like one of the most famous objects in the history of Transformers mythology, the "Matrix of Leadership." Each side of the box slides out to allow access to the Matrix, and finally, the discs themselves, which are contained in three or four-disc containers that divide them primarily according to season. In addition to the discs and containers, the set includes Autobot and Decepticon refrigerator magnets, and a collectible 60-page booklet, although I admit I have no idea what makes it "collectible" (it provides synopses, content information, and trivia about some of the episodes).

The video featurettes and extras, meanwhile, add modestly to the weight of the episodes themselves, and the most important of these involves either the creators or members of the voice cast. There's something more than a little odd about hearing the guy who played Swoop (as well as G.I. Joe's Duke!) discussing his memories of making the show, but in particular the retrospective cast roundup is one of those amazing opportunities for longtime viewers to put a face to familiar names. Otherwise, most of the extras are for diehard fans only, including stuff like printable scripts, not to mention the surprisingly good fan artwork and short film that is included in the Seasons Three and Four extras.

But again—is this better than, say, buying only a season at a time? Or maybe just buying those that were meaningful to you personally and leaving the rest for folks with more interest and/or disposable income? Because I am a fan of the show and toy line but no longer have a real fascination with episodes themselves, I feel obligated to recommend that prospective collectors buy or rent one of the season-specific sets first and then make their buying decision after watching that. Ultimately, Shout! has done a wonderful job creating a package and a DVD collection that pays tribute to the show's supporters, but with a hefty price tag—and, quite frankly, a hesitation to recommend The Transformers as fully rewarding rather than just fondly remembered—the 25th Anniversary "Matrix of Leadership" Edition may be more than meets the eye, when what one ultimately wants may be less.