It's a debate as old as time -- OK, as old as any of us who grew up in the '80s: Who's the baddest (as in awesome-bad) gang of intergalactic robot heroes to ever blast their way into our collective pop consciousness? Some say Transformers, those transmogrifying alien beings waging war on Earth in the form of automobiles. Others argue Voltron, or rather, Voltron Force, a team of five human space pilots whose lion-shaped aircrafts could combine to form one giant, sword-wielding robot warrior.
For my money -- considering things like, you know, story and character -- only one robot action property had the foundation to become much more than just a toy-selling cinematic cash-in. And it wasn't the one with the jive-talking cars.
Now, we all know Transformers got not one, but two live-action film adaptations thanks to spectacle expert Michael Bay, who found the magic formula for adapting a franchise originally meant to sell toys. (Shia LaBeouf + Megan Fox's cleavage + loud, barely distinguishable CGI robots = a two film and counting, $700 million plus global film franchise.) But given the recent news that the other '80s robot franchise is set for a reboot, starting with an animated series and new line of merchandise, which series really deserved to get the big screen treatment?
Voltron, as most American kids of the 1980s knew it, was created by producer Peter Keefe by re-editing together footage from two previous Japanese-language anime shows, Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Though Voltron's story and characters bore many resemblances to its sources, heavy elements like violence and death were cut out for American audiences. What remained was the space opera plot about five pilots of differing strength and temperament who fought together against evil in a battalion of five robot ships shaped like lions.
Effective as they were individually, the Voltron team members were never more powerful than when they banded together, literally connected to one another in a configuration that emphasized teamwork and togetherness. The resulting super robot, Voltron, also happened to look like the coolest thing imaginable: a metallic, flying, robot man WITH LION HEADS FOR HANDS AND FEET and a big-ass sword whose official title was, modestly, "Defender of the Universe."
The Transformers, on the other hand, may have had numbers on their side in terms of representing every type of automobile known to man (the better to sell toys with), but what kid really wanted to see a cement truck come to life? Where Voltron had the key element of human drama to propel its plotlines forward, Transformers relied on an ongoing series of skirmishes between bad robots and good robots over the rousing, heart-stirring topic of ... natural resources. Right. Transformers may have fascinated mechanically-inclined children with its endless stream of morphing car characters, but story was not integral to its popularity with the playground set.
In its defense, Transformers' simplistic canon story may have been exactly the thing that made it so rife for adaptation into a Hollywood film franchise; screenwriters John Rogers, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman were able to take the basic plot of Autobots and Decepticons fighting over energy cubes and somehow make it all about Shia LaBeouf's neurotic unlikely hero stammering his way through one explosion after another. Twice. (And they'll do it again in 2011.) Few, however, would argue that the secret to the success of Bay's Transformers films had anything to do with substantive story content.
But what of the franchise with the richer established storyline? A Voltron movie, if made, would face the task of updating its base story for a new audience -- no easy feat considering that it's so specific in detail, and dated to boot. There are elements I loved about the original series that should absolutely make it into a feature film adaptation: The theme of teamwork; the ragtag band of pilots; Voltron's awesome design; the unspoken love between Commander Keith and Princess Allura, Voltron's token girl team member. But much of the series' plot had to do with the Voltron Force battling the evil King Zarkon and his son, Lotor, who kind of looked like a World of Warcraft Night Elf, one with a seriously icky crush on Princess Allura. Perhaps more problematic for filmmakers hoping to launch a new Voltron franchise is the fact that the fantasy world of Voltron merged robots, technology, alien creatures, witches, and a Speed Racer meets Star Wars aesthetic -- all of which might be hard to adapt for modern audiences without feeling derivative, familiar, or just plain random.
Still, I'll take the movie about the giant, lion-handed, super robot of space justice any day over the one about robots that turn into cars. According to a recent interview with MTV, producers Richard Suckle and Ted Koplar are still hopeful that the rebooted Voltron animated series and toy line will make the franchise popular enough to spawn a feature film -- and they're so optimistic, they're looking for screenwriters to write an all new script. "In a perfect world, [we] could have a Voltron movie sometime in the summer of 2013," said Suckle, who also emphasized that making the CG robots look pretty would be the easy part. "It's got to be a movie that has really dynamic, interesting characters and a really strong narrative."
I wholeheartedly agree, and I hope that Hollywood gets this one right. There are a lot of ways to screw up a property that people have loved for decades, a lot of ways this franchise could become all gloss and no substance. And Megan Fox is now free to sign on for another explosion-filled robot action blockbuster. Don't let Voltron be the next Transformers!