It’s really easy to get cynical at Transformers. Now I’m not talking to about the Michael Bay movies or any one particular incarnation of the venerable franchise. But to understand Transformers fiction, you have to accept that the Transformers brand solely exists to sell toys. Of course, this isn’t a radical concept as plenty of cartoons are willed into existence for kids to convince their parents to fork over that sweet disposable income. But when I was doing research for this review, I came across this list of popular Transformers story tropes that coincide with new toys or the removal of certain characters. So when you start to look at entertainment as “a corporate product” instead of “good stories working within the limitations of its given media”, it’s pretty easy to write Transformers off as tawdry.
But here’s the thing, Transformers has become one of the most enduring media franchises of this generation and it’s not because of the toys. I mean, the toys are cool but have you ever wondered why there was enough fuel in the tank for five live action Transformers movies yet only one live action Max Steel movie? If you look back the original or “G1” Transformers, the reason becomes clear: it’s the characters. Optimus Prime’s stoic heroism and constant resurrections paints him up to be a messianic figure. Bumblebee’s smart aleck/plucky nature makes him someone to root for. Megatron’s mega megalomaniacal conquest for makes him a simple but when paired with Starscream’s sniveling subservience (which belies the character’s schemes against Megatron) gives both characters some depth. I could go on but you get the idea. The original Transformers is remembered with such unironic fondness is because the talent behind those stories made you care about the robots in disguise. So long as the characters keep connecting with audiences, they’re going to keep making Transformers.
This is especially true of Transformers: Rescue Bots; an all ages spinoff to the Transformers franchise. On the surface, Transformers: Rescue Bots looks like an outlier of everything Transformers represents. It doesn’t focus on the never ending battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. There’s way too many human characters and not enough giant metal aliens. And everyone learns lessons of teamwork and safety and ARGGHH!!!! WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO MY CHILDHOOD!!! Sorry, that was my impression of someone with no life. Yes, Transformers: Rescue Bots is made with the preschooler crowd in mind, but it’s not some piece of prepubescent pablum. The series was developed by Nicole Dubuc (Young Justice, The Spectacular Spider-Man), Brian Hohlfeld (Piglet’s Big Movie) and Jeff Kline (Transformers Prime, Transformers: Robots in Disguise). Working alongside such writers like Greg Johnson (Miles From Tomorrowland), Mairghread Scott (Avengers Assemble), Greg Weisman (Shimmer and Shine), Andrew R. Robinson (Boop!), Thomas Pugsley (Ben 10), Zac Atkinson (G.I. Joe :Renegades), Shannon McKain (Red Shirts), Kevin Burke and Chris Wyatt (Ultimate Spider-Man), the producers had plenty of creative energy to pen 104 episodes.
Crafting each adventure took many teams of artists and animators. The art design doesn’t change much between each season. All the characters are designed to be simple yet expressive. The color palate is radiant with positive vibes. What’s interesting is that the people behind the scenes kept changing. Jeff Kline left after Season One to work on Transformers: Robots in Disguise (more on that later), but Frank Molieri picked up where he left off as Executive producer and supervising director. Several different Canadian animation companies worked on Transformers: Rescue Bots but they all used the Toon Boom Harmony tool. Similar to Adobe Flash animation, the animation quality isn’t very fluid on screen but it’s elevated by experienced episodic directors like Nathan Chew (Men in Black: The Series), Patrick Archibald (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes), Tim Maltby (Tom and Jerry Tales), and Kevin Altieri (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm…seriously).
The series premise is pretty straight forward. Four Rescue Bots crash land their spaceship on the fictional island town of Griffin Rock. Once there, the Rescue Bots are recruited by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to assist Police Chief Charlie Burns (Maurice LaMarche) and his family of rescue workers in keeping keep Griffin Rock safe from emergencies. In addition, Optimus tasks the bots to learn all they can about Earth culture while maintaining their cover as the Burns Family’s state of the art rescue vehicles in the hopes that one day, man and sentient alien machines can achieve peaceful coexistence.
In many respects, Transformers: Rescue Bots plays out like the science fiction series Eureka. The town is home to the world’s leading scientists and it’s up to the local law enforcement to save the day from any accidental or intentional misuse of advanced technologies running amok. This set up works well to teach kids about safety and to facilitate the larger than life scenarios that warrants a team of transforming giant robot aliens. Later seasons would have the team venture out to new locations like the Egyptian desert or a laboratory in China, but the producers always kept updating Griffin Rock with new lore, inventions, and characters. The best thing about the science fiction aspect of Griffin Rock is that the producers use it to discuss the importance of science to children. Like, the rescues are exciting and the robots are cool, but seeing a children’s cartoon subtlety work in the importance of science as a positive force for the future of everyone and everything on Earth impressed the Hell out of me.
Now let’s talk about the lead characters. Gruff and stubborn, Heatwave (Steve Blum) is the de-facto leader of the Rescue Bots. Throughout the course of the series, Heatwave starts out with a Firetruck and Robot transformation but gains more forms throughout the course of the series. But Heatwave’s true transformative growth comes from accepting the responsibilities of leading a team. His partner Kade Burns (Jason Marsden) is brash attitude and they get into personal conflict on a regular basis. But overtime, they earn each other’s respect which builds to a strong platonic friendship.
Next is Chase (D.C. Douglas) whose vehicle mode is the police car Chief Burns drives. Between his strict adherence to law enforcement and confusion towards human customs, Chase is the most robotic of the Rescue Bots which makes him a great source of humor in the series.
By far the best source of humor comes from Blades (Parvesh Cheena), the Rescue Bot most in tune with their emotions. Being able to transform into a helicopter, Blades is the only Rescue Bot that can fly but his fear of heights. This coupled with his outgoing personality, Blades is the one Rescue Bot given a lot of comedic material. Especially when contrasted by his fearless helicopter pilot partner Dani Burns (Lacey Chabert).
Lastly, there’s Boulder (Imari Williams) who transforms into a bulldozer. Boulder’s deep voice and tough exterior belies his curiosity with Earth’s art culture and wilderness. This makes him nice compliment to his partner Graham Burns (Shannon McKain), a construction engineer who’s more into city planning than drip painting.
And then there’s Cody Burns (Élan Garfias), the youngest member of the Burns family and arguably most important character in the series. You see, it’s a tradition in the Transformers stories to have a human character serve as an audience surrogate and Transformers: Rescue Bots continues that tradition with Cody. The show isn’t solely focused on Cody nor is it told through his own perspective, but he’s character who the audience (little children) can not only sympathize with, but can actively see themselves as. Cody’s not old enough to be a rescue worker so initially, he doesn’t get much respect from his older siblings. But his friendship with the Rescue Bots makes him a mediator between the bots and the Burns whenever there’s interpersonal conflict in the team.
Plus, Cody’s position as the team’s communications officer gives him (and in turn, the viewer) an overview of emergency situations and it somewhat justifies his ability to come up with solutions to almost every problem quickly.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Greene family for as often as Cody comes up with the solutions, it’s his best friend and math wiz Francine “Frankie” Greene (Diamond White) along with her eccentric father “Doc” Ezra Greene (LeVar Burton) also provide solutions with Star Trek-esque analogies to keep things simple for the audience. From Season One, it’s just Frankie and Doc Greene living together as father and daughter. But over time, their family grows with the addition of Professor Anna Baranova (Kath Soucie), their newborn daughter CeCe (Kath Soucie), and a giant robot Tyrannosaurus rex guard named Trex (LeVar Burton). From my perspective, the Greene’s aren’t some box to check for some diversity quota but well thought out characters that represent our ever changing world.
The same could be said for the rest of the townsfolk that populate Griffin Rock. You may not know each of their names but every character from Mrs. Neederlander (Billie Hayes) to Jerry the Truck Driver (Shannon McKain) are visibly distinguishable from one another and rely on the Burns Family rescue team on a regular basis. Overtime, these background players become more noticeable and if you’re like me, you’ll find that there’s…well, more than meets the eye to each of them.
Now if there’s one aspect of Transformers: Rescue Bots that feels weak, it’s the actual Transformers stuff. So hear me out on this; Transformers: War for Cybertron, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Transformers: Prime, Transformers: Rescue Bots, and Transformers: Robots in Disguise all exist in the same continuity. Transformers: Rescue Bots serves as a bridge between the other two shows so Optimus Prime does show up but he’s used sparingly. In the grand scheme of things, I get why they don’t have Optimus swoop in and save the day all the time. But at the same time, it’s still a bummer that Optimus, Bumblebee (Will Friedle), and Sideswipe (Darren Criss) are regulated to special guest stars. Aside from a few in-jokes within the other shows, there are no Rescue Bots crossovers within this Transformers shared universe. Now this isn’t inherently bad as the show is confident in doing its own thing, but a missed opportunity in the whole share universe design.
As for the toyetic part of Transformers: Rescue Bots, I’m actually okay with that. In the realm of entertainment, there’s two types of product placement: the nakedly obvious kind where you know you’re watching a production promotion and the more subtle kind where the product is woven into the diegetic framework. So when is came time for Hasbro to demand new toys for the show to promote, the producers wisely worked them with a clear understanding of how they would fit within the world they built. Season Two added the Mobile Command Center and “energize powers” for each of the Rescue Bots. Season Three saw new Dinosaur forms for the Rescue Bots (because Age of Extinction reasons) along with the cantankerous naval veteran High Tide (Michael Bell), the hot headed Blurr (Max Mittelman), the laid back tinkerer Salvage (Jason Marsden), and mechanical canine Servo as recurring cast members. Lastly, Season Four added Quickshadow (Alex Kingston), the only female Rescue Bot, to the team. Each new power and transformation up the ante in the action department and each new character that joins the rescue team reinforces the importance of teamwork and being selfless. As important as it is to point out that modern cartoons exist to sell merchandise, I can’t muster up any outrage when one of these cartoons is very well made.
At its core, Transformers: Rescue Bots is all about teaching kids that the pursuit of knowledge and the importance of safety are positive things which is why I don’t find any of it cynical. The characters are memorable, the art design is vividly imaginative, and the lived island of Griffin Rock offers plenty for audiences of all ages to discover. And yes, it’s a show for children but this stuff matters so much. Kids deserve a show that’s good. They deserve entertainment that doesn’t talk down to them and doesn’t assume all they need are flashy visuals to keep them docile. The main reason why I review children’s cartoon series on Periodical Media is to highlight the ones that have merit. The shows we watch and the information we absorb at a young age affects the makeup of our adult lives.
Transformers: Rescue Bots is a fun little spinoff that highlights the best aspects of Transformers franchise. But it’s also a reminder that working on a licensed property for children means accepting a responsibility bigger than yourself. To do better and to do right for an entire generation of children. And the folks that made Transformers: Rescue Bots did just that.
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