How It Takes an Old ‘Beast Wars’ to Make a New ‘Transformers’

This summer’s “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is the latest of seven films in the long-running series of live-action films based on Hasbro’s hugely popular toy franchise; the first since the critically acclaimed 2018 spinoff, “Bumblebee”; and the first mainline installment since the Michael Bay-directed “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017). Like all of the films in the series to date, “Rise of the Beasts” is based on characters first designed in 1984 as a line of children’s action figures, much like Mattel’s Masters of the Universe or Hasbro’s own G.I. Joe. But this new chapter also pulls from an unusual source: “Beast Wars: Transformers,” a somewhat obscure Canadian television show that ran from 1996 to 1999.

“Rise of the Beasts” takes place largely in New York in the 1990s, and follows the action-packed exploits of a race of powerful robots who live in disguise as cars and trucks, including the series hero Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, reprising his role as voice actor from all of the previous films). This time around, Prime and his allies are joined by the Maximals, time-traveling Transformers from the distant future who turn into animals rather than vehicles: They include the rhinoceros Rhinox (David Sobolov), the falcon Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), the cheetah Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa) and the gorilla Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), a descendant of Prime. All of the new animal Transformers have been faithfully lifted from “Beast Wars,” which featured these characters living on a barren alien planet and doing battle with the nefarious Blackarachnia (a spider) and Scorponok (a scorpion), among other foes with similarly literal names.

“Beast Wars” was produced in Vancouver, British Columbia, by the animation company Mainframe Studios, which had previously developed “ReBoot,” a pioneering computer-animated series from the ’90s, for the popular Canadian children’s entertainment network YTV. Also fully computer-animated — at a time when that technology was still in its infancy — “Beast Wars” looked a little like a starker, more rudimentary version of “Toy Story,” with colorful, bulbous character models moving simply around sparse environments. The series ran for three seasons on YTV (under the more kid-friendly title “Beasties”) and in syndication across the United States, winning a Daytime Emmy for outstanding achievement in animation in 1998 and inspiring a TV sequel, several comic books and two video games — and now, almost three decades after its debut, a feature film (sort of).

Were it not for some of its characters and designs resurfacing this month in “Rise of the Beasts,” it seems likely that “Beast Wars” would have continued to recede into a lasting obsolescence, forgotten to all but the most nostalgic ’90s kids and most dedicated “Transformers” fans. And while the somewhat tangential connection to the source material may prevent the movie from kicking off a sudden torrent of interest in the Canadian series — “Rise of the Beasts” has not been especially billed as a “Beast Wars” movie, and the show has scarcely come up during press for the film — it’s still a good occasion to give the series its long-awaited due. Happily, the entire original run of “Beast Wars” was released on home video by Shout Factory in 2011 and is now available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.



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