You know how I’ve mentioned before that one of the problems with comic publishers is that they don’t do a good enough job of separating out their children’s lines from their general audience lines from their mature readers lines? Well, it’s not a fault unique to comic publishers. Film-makers apparently have difficulty telling the three audiences apart as well. If you doubt my word on that, go and see Transformers, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

The Transformers film is an attempt to take a children’s toy line and make it palatable for the general audience, but somehow along the way they ended up making a film for, well, guys my age, who played with the toys when they were kids, and now want the property to be as “serious” and “mature” as they imagine themselves to be. What you end up with is a film pretending to be for children, but with enough overtures towards sex and violence as to firmly place it in the “not for children” category. Let’s take, for example, some of the violence. The film ends with a giant robot battle through a busy, densely populated city. The death toll from this fight must enter into the thousands, minimum. Yet that is all glossed over, because we’re supposed to feel bad that one of the robots got hurt. It’s a strange “Saturday morning” approach to the consequences of carnage, that simply doesn’t fit with the “this is serious” tone it’s supposed to be taking place in. The sexual references in the film are more of the sniggering adolescent variety, and don’t fit in at all with either the “kid’s movie” aspects or the “serious adult action film” aspects, but they did seem to make the many dads with young kids in the audience uncomfortable.

That tonal inconsistency is probably the most profound when the toy commercial aspects of the film come most to the fore. We’re not meant, really, to identify with any of the human characters. At best, they’re broadly sketched and one-note. The robots, ironically, are the only characters with which any effort has been made to develop their personalities. And even that was limited. Amongst the Decepticons, the only robot to have anything resembling a personality on display is Frenzy; the other evil robots all have interchangeable “evil thug” personas. You suspect the only reason they even have names is so that there is something to put on the toy boxes. It’s also particularly notable whenever Optimus Prime or Megatron are speaking. To the delight of hard-core Transformers fans, I’m sure, their dialogue sounds like something directly lifted from the cartoons. And that’s when you realize that something which kinda-sorta worked in a campy half-hour toy commercial for the 12-and-under set utterly fails to work in a serious adult action film clocking in at two hours plus. It becomes cringe-worthy, and you start to hope that Bumblebee’s inability to speak English was a trait shared by all the robots.

The height, however, of this inconsistency of tone, is a scene in which Shia Labeouf must explain, totally straight-faced, the back-story behind the film to skeptical government agents. It’s an utterly ridiculous scene, and an utterly ridiculous story he’s expected to tell. And the other actors must react to him as if he’s putting all the pieces into place and now everything in the film makes sense. It’s utterly absurd in it’s postmodern decadence, and I can only pity Mr. Labeouf, as I can only imagine the number of times the scene had to be shot and reshot, the number of takes ruined by Labeouf or the other actors cracking up at the sheer stupidity of what they’re expected to swallow.

Had these tonal problems been solved, the film could have been enjoyable, perhaps even fun. There’s nothing wrong with “dumb” action movies, especially when they’re not trying to be anything other than what they are. But as these problems keep coming up, I found myself being less and less well-disposed to the film. My inner 12 year old was okay with the idea of big robots slamming twelve kinds of hell out of each other. But, if you’re going to make a movie for twelve year olds, make a movie for twelve year olds. Don’t make a movie for thirty year old men who can’t get over a toy they liked when they were twelve.

The only redeeming grace for the film, is that without it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten these little guys made:

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