The “When Can I Watch With My Kids” column has offered a healthy mix off commentary on past classics and films parents are curious about today.
In this, the summer season of blockbusters, no film captivates an audience’s attention as much as the July 4 release, and this year should be no different. Michael Bay continues (and some say concludes) his flashy, effect-driven Transformers series with the third installment -- Dark of the Moon -- which returns Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro and an army of Autobots and Decepticons for a bombastic thriller that promises to decide the fate of our planet. Quiet, indie character study with awards potential, this is not.
With Dark of the Moon looming, we’re revisiting the series’ 2007 start. Later in the week, we’ll do a follow up to discuss the third Transformers so you’ll know if it’s appropriate for your young ones. Now, let’s retrieve the Allspark, hook half of a Bumblebee up to our tow truck and figure out when you can watch Transformers with your kids.
The Discussion: A blast from whose past?
Most readers my age grew up with Transformers, shape-shifting toys that morphed from cars, jets, trucks, helicopters and boom boxes into combat-ready robots. The toy line inspired a television show, comic books, video games and animated films. But the Transformers didn’t have as deep of a cultural impact as, say, Star Wars or your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, so our kids likely didn’t interact with them unless we went out of our way to expose them to Hasbro’s sci-fi heroes and villains.
My boys, for example, don’t know Optimus Prime from Omega Supreme. And if you’ve ever picked a Transformer toy off the shelf of your neighborhood store, you know that they’re now so incredibly complicated that most of the ones in my house are stuck in some mutated transition between car and robot, discarded out of frustration by both my seven-year-old son and his 37-year-old father.
That posed a problem to Transformers producers back in 2007. Should a modern Transformer movie simplify itself to appeal to kids who might grow interested in this robotic world as a result? Or do you beef up the action, violence, mythology and effects to appeal to original Transformers devotees who have matured (theoretically) and have grown accustomed to high-tech pyrotechnics that essentially “blow stuff up real good,” as one critic of the original films so eloquently put it?
By hiring Michael Bay, Paramount essentially selected the second option, and so Bay’s Transformer films aren’t necessarily movies you’d pop in for your youngest children, even though they are films that ultimately were inspired by a line of toys.
Let’s figure out why in the red flags section.
Red Flags: More Like “More Than Meets the Eye Candy”
Michael Bay’s Transformers is a Michael Bay movie first and a Transformers movie second.
By playing to an audience he attracted with films like Bad Boys (and its sequel), The Rock, Armageddon and The Island, Bay essentially fits beloved Transformers like Optimus, Bumblebee, Jazz, Starscream and Megatron into a prototypical “Michael Bay Film” instead of changing gears to tell a Transformers story.
Some of the elements are superficially obvious, from a scantily-clad mall chick of a love interest (Megan Fox) asked to do little more than lean seductively over the hood of a car to a flaccid hero we’re never entirely comfortable cheering for -- and in that respect, Shia LaBeouf joins a long line of egotistical Bay protagonists that have been embodied over the years by equally self-centered actors like Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Nicolas Cage.
Other changes are subtle but equally expected by anyone who has watched more than one of Bay’s efforts. The director has a deep distrust of government agencies, which often flies in the face of the sincere appreciation the director shows to our nation’s military. And he has an infantile sense of humor, which in Bay’s Transformers films manifests itself in leg-humping robots, Autobots “urinating” on John Turtorro’s head, the hiring of Anthony Anderson (rarely good), and LaBeouf’s parents, two of the most hideously obnoxious characters I’ve seen on screen in the last 30 years.
Oh, and did I mention that the average run time of a Transformers film is two-and-a-half hours? Not exactly kid-friendly.
So why hire Bay? Because you know when the money shot’s due, he’s going to deliver the bombastic robot-on-robot violence meant to characterize a modern Transformers film. Let’s give credit where credit is due in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: And BOOM! Goes the Dynamite
By no means am I advocating watching the Transformers movies. In my opinion, the first two each had decent scenes scattered throughout them, but the bridges connecting the action are cluttered with the wreckage of wafer-thin characterization, head-scratching plot twists, half-baked mythology and acting that can best be described as “broad” (and that’s being kind, Mr. Turturro).
But when the Bay-infused mayhem -- or, as I like to call it, Bay-hem -- hits, the Transformers films ratchet the effects up to a level rarely achieved (or even attempted) by rival filmmakers. Bay and his team figure out how to get their cameras directly into the battle, when truthfully, we’re begging for one or two wide shots so we can actually see who’s hitting who.
“Why are the soldiers shooting all of the Transformers?” my 7-year-old son asked when we fast-forwarded to the city-leveling battle at the end of Bay’s first movie. I had to explain to him that Duhamel, Gibson and the military men weren’t actually shooting ALL of the Transformers, but that you just couldn’t tell which robots were good, bad, or indifferent. My son, P.J., also asked me if Optimus had ears when he saw the sleek robot conversing with Sam. Great question! I have no idea. Do you?
Transformers walks a fine line.
The battle sequences are gigantic, but extremely violent, even if it’s a robot-on-robot crime. Autobots are ripped in half (rest in peace, Jazz). Decepticons are blasted to rubble. If your kids are ready for it, Bay’s movies can introduce them to effects and battle choreography they probably haven’t seen on the screen before. At the very least, the film could encourage your children to think big when coming up with their own stories. But there’s just too much “adult” exposition in between to hold a young child’s interest.
Michael Bay’s Transformers is appropriate for kids age 11 and up. That’s probably the age where they’d be able to make it through the whole thing, appreciate Bay’s humor (which is aimed at young teens), and decipher the mythology created by these films. Because the violence in Bay’s battle scenes is so fantastical, I think you can show some of the battle scenes to younger children, just so they can get a sense of the transforming robots, and maybe Sam’s eventual bravery. But since Bay is, at best, an overgrown kid at heart, his films are made with his peers in mind -- fellow teenagers who want senseless robot violence with very little mental stimulation beyond the next explosion.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
Back to the Future
Superman: The Movie
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga