DVD REVIEW - Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising
Five episode "movie" event kicks off the new generation of Autobots and Decepticons...
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Transformers cartoons have been on the air since way back in 1984, with a quite a few different incarnations of the years. The early 2000s brought viewers the “Unicron” trilogy of Armada, Energon, and Cybertron with a big, sweeping storyline. Then the franchise branched off in a whole new direction with Transformers Animated that took more cues from anime and ditched the increasing CG elements of the previous series. Animated ended in 2009 along with the announcement of Hasbro’s upcoming Hub TV network. As part of the Hub launch, Hasbro debuted the latest version of the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons, the computer-animated Transformers: Prime! To get fans interested, the first five episodes of Prime comprised a standalone mini series called “Darkness Rising.” Originally shown in five episodic segments on TV, Transformers Prime - Darkness Rising is now available on DVD from Shout! Factory in a long-form movie version!
Darkness Rising comes packaged in a slipcase that’s identical to the DVD case inside, though it adds a couple stickers advertising the Hub and some special features. Autobots are front and center on the cover with Optimus Prime flanked by his loyal troops; Megatron and his cronies are much smaller looking down on the do-gooders from a nearby cliff. The back cover has a lengthy description of Darkness Rising and a listing of some of the cast and crew, while both Transformers and humans are represented in small images. Inside the case you’ll find the Autobot and Decepticon insignias, and Megatron graces the disc.
Jumping right into the action, Darkness Rising gives viewers a glimpse of a whole new world. Distinct from series that have come before as well as the films, Transformers Prime represents an Earth where Autobots live in secret and vigilantly watch for any Decepticon activity. When the scout Cliffjumper is ambushed and deactivated by a sneak attack, the Autobots are faced with the return of the Decepticons in force led by Starscream. Each side picks up allies with the heroic Autobots befriending three human children and the Decepticons welcoming back their lost leader Megatron. The story turns dark as the evil robot experiments with Dark Energon, using it to revive Cliffjumper as a zombie before turning an entire graveyard full of Cybertronians into shambling monsters aimed at Optimus Prime and Ratchet! Megatron’s plans involve using the Space Bridge to return to Cybertron and zombify all of the Transformers there, but with help from the humans the Autobots are able to stop him, seemingly destroying him in the process.
One of the best things about Transformers Prime is its voice cast. Full of old favorites as well as current voiceover stars, the show features the original Optimus Prime and Megatron, Peter Cullen and Frank Welker. Also on board are Arcee (Sumalee Montano), Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs), Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson), Cliffjumper (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Starscream (Steven Blum), Jack Darby (Josh Keaton), Miko Nakadai (Tania Gunadi), Raf Esquivel (Andy Pessoa), Special Agent Bill Fowler (Ernie Hudson), and June Darby (Markie Post). As in the films, this version of Bumblebee does not speak but rather emits noises (and Soundwave “speaks” through recorded information).
The Darkness Rising saga tells a very compelling story that’s a good mix of action, character development, and world building. The Transformers are unique characters and (with the exception of the Decepticon drones) have their own voices and personalities. When Cliffjumper is killed mere moments into the film it’s just as much a shock to the viewers as it is to his teammates. Big name characters like Optimus and Starscream maintain what you already know and love about them, respectively nobility and craven scheming. Megatron takes megalomania to a new level with his obsession with Dark Energon and its mystical properties, while Arcee and Bulkhead help ground the Autobots as they interact with the humans. Speaking of whom, unlike in many previous Transformers shows the “kids” are not annoying in Prime! In fact, they’re fleshed out, relatable, and even funny. Of course, Jeffrey Combs steals his scenes as the curmudgeonly Ratchet, and even Bumblebee is less annoying than he is in the movies.
The animation in Transformers Prime is really cool. Computer-generated animation for television has come so far and Darkness Rising shows the best of what it can be. The Transformers designs are mostly reminiscent of earlier incarnations (whether it’s Prime’s semi, Bumblebee’s Chevy Camaro, Bulkhead’s big green truck, Ratchet’s ambulance, Arcee’s motorcycle, Starscream’s jet, or Megatron’s Cybertronian gunship), and feature tons of detail in both modes. The transformation sequences are smooth and detailed, and special attention was paid to the robots’ face designs to make them expressive and animated. Fight scenes feature great choreography and plenty of fast-paced blasting action.
Darkness Rising is relatively light on special features, but what is included is solid. There’s a five minute long “Look at Character Design” with tons of model sheets, turnarounds, test shots, and more of the Transformers and humans, not to mention some wild unused designs. “A Look at Set Design” takes you inside all of the locations in Darkness Rising with tons of different views, schematics, animated sequences, and more. Finally, an animatic for episode one gives you a glimpse at the creative process from story to art to finished animation.
Transformers Prime is currently between seasons 1 and 2 (coming in early 2012), so it’s the perfect time to catch up on the series starting with Transformers Prime - Darkness Rising. The DVD is available through Shout! Factory's online store and wherever home video is sold with an SRP of only about $15. Get it now for the Transformers fan on your list and watch out for Season One to hit DVD and Blu-ray in March.
Review by Scott Rubin
Review Sample Courtesy of Shout! Factory