Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords Review is an entry in this year’s TRN Essay Contest. Get the details on how YOU can enter here! Thanks to Brian Cave for entering! You can follow him on Twitter @old_school_evil. He’s also on Facebook and Instagram.
In 1986, a movie came out that changed the lives of millions of kids. Featuring giant transforming robots traversing the cosmos, they search for a threat that could possibly mean the end of the universe. That movie, of course, was Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords.
Somehow this movie alluded me as a kid. I was a huge Transformers fan, to be fair, but I didn’t hate Go-Bots. I watched the cartoon, though not as religiously, and I owned a couple of Gobots. I didn’t really play with them together and I didn’t think of one of them being related to the other. I think whenever I played with the few Gobots I owned, they were in a vacuum. There wasn’t a battle they were a part of or anything – I couldn’t even tell you if they were a good guy or bad guy. They were just Gobots, something to fiddle with curiously, like some weird funhouse mirror reflection of my favorite toyline.
I was a little more familiar with the cartoon than the toys. The good guy Guardians fought against the villainous Renegades and brought their war from their metal home planet to Earth. Each of the Gobots has its own special ability along with converting to a vehicle mode. The Guardians gained a set of human friends and the Renegades had teamed up with an evil human scientist in the first few episodes. The show focused on a few main characters for each side and rotated supporting characters through each episode. Gobots were essentially just reskinned Transformers, or vice versa if you prefer..
Of course, there were differences and, to me, they all fall under one big umbrella – the Transformers lied to us while the Gobots were brutally honest about themselves. In the cartoons, the Gobots are animated exactly as their toy looks (with one exception, Scooter’s toy never could show his face in vehicle mode). If a Gobot’s toy shows the robot’s head in vehicle mode, you’ll be sure it’s visible in the cartoon. When they convert, the steps match exactly how the toy changes, and they take their time showing you.
Compare that to Transformers who the art designers for the cartoon had no problem changing them to look better. Gone were Megatron’s massive trigger crotch, skinny legs, and stumpy arms; hello sexy Decepticon warlord we all know and love. There were so many changes to the cartoon model from the toys that some characters, like Ironhide and Ratchet, were virtually unrecognizable. And that was a good thing because the toys were a joke. Transformers, for me, just did a better job selling their toys.
By the time I found out about the Transformers movie, teased at the end of some later cartoon episodes, I had all but forgotten Gobots. I think at one point as I got older, I heard about the Guardians and Renegades getting a movie of their own, but assumed it was another GI Joe movie, released on video, not even coming close to the silver screen. Imagine my surprise when I was looking up animated films that came out in theaters and among the Bravestarrs and My Little Ponies, there was Leader-1, uh, leading the charge. Coming out a full five months before, Gobots had beaten the Transformers to cinemas.
So, I decided to give it a watch, a decision that came with its own problems – the movie is nowhere to be found online. Even though the Gobots series, Challenge of the Gobots, is available on DVD on Amazon, the movie has only been released on VHS back in the 80s. Only a few of those are even on eBay, but there’s none within my price range. I actually had to watch this thing in a cropped video on Youtube, which is why I can’t share any images for it either.
Before I get to the meat of this, an admission: It took me three days to finish this movie. I couldn’t watch more than 30 minutes at a time. Why 30 minutes? Because this movie is nothing more than an extended episode. Comparing it to Transformers, which was made over the course of two years, there’s no change in quality that differentiates Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords and their titular cartoon series.
Let’s take a look at the visuals first. The animation is still the same stilted, slow action as before, without any effort made to improve upon it. While Transformers had this beautifully animated intro with Unicron eating Lithone, the Gobots movie’s first action scene is a space battle with ships just lazily crossing the screen, firing lasers in all directions. A few of the Guardian Commander Center fly by and get blown up in explosions that are little more than a puff of smoke. There’s no speed or expediency in the whole scene, no sense of real action or excitement as things just plod along. Unfortunately for the movie (and the viewers), things never get better. Introductions for new characters, the pivotal fight scenes, the climax of the whole movie – they all look the same.
The same problems with animating the Gobots faithfully – to a fault – in the series make their way into the movie as well. The Rock Lords’s transformations are painfully slow, some of their faces still being visible in rock mode. Silhouette, one of the first Rock Lords we’re introduced to, doesn’t even have a rock mode and it’s obvious by her completely different proportions than the rest of the species. Nuggit, her companion, doesn’t fare better, as he’s supposed to be gold like his toy, but animated as five shades of beige.
And that’s all just part of the problem. Where Gobots really suffers is the story. The movie doesn’t offer any higher stakes than the series, and this is the biggest comparison I can make to the Transformers movie. While we kids didn’t want to see our childhood heroes falling left and right, it did elevate the movie above what we were watching on television. The writers were able to explore things in the movie that they couldn’t put in the series, something that – outside of a few exploding Command Centers and crumbling Rock Lords – the Gobots movie was unable or unwilling to attempt.
It reminds me of comparisons made between the South Park and Simpsons movies. The creators of South Park used the silver screen to do things that couldn’t be done on cable (at least until recently) while the Simpson movie could have easily just been another episode. The same goes for Transformers vs. Gobots, just replace the excessive cursing with character death (and a little bit of cursing).
Furthermore, the main threat is directly against the Transformers, as Unicron is going to eat their home planet. There’s no threat presented to the Gobots whatsoever: instead, the Rock Lords go to them and through an incredibly long and tedious info dump, ask the Gobots for help. Say the Rock Lords missed Gobotron or the Gobots had said, “No thanks.” That’s the end of the movie since nothing the Rock Lords were doing would even affect Gobotron at all.
But Leader-1 decides to help out, and big help he is because Cy-Kill immediately kidnaps Silhouette. Cy-Kill offers his help to Magmar, his Rock Lords counterpart, who is amassing the Scepters, powerful weapons from each of the tribes’ leaders. Leader-1 and the Guardians meet up with Boulder, his own counterpart and we find out the origin of the Rock Lords. Amazingly, it’s the exact same origin of the Gobots. They were once a biological species that instead of becoming robots, everything on their planet became living rocks. Except of course, for some stupid elephant/mole looking creature that becomes the movie’s cutesy mascot.
Cy-Kill hands over Silhouette’s scepter to Magmar, he assembles all the scepters into one powerful scepter, ad Cy-Kill betrays him to steal the power for himself. Your typical villain plan, which Magmar falls for because of course. In the end, the bad Rock Lords escape by walking away, Boulder and Silhouette claim victory, and the Guardians leave forever as this movie closed out the adventures of the Gobots.
Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords made a total of $1.3 million dollars in theaters. It boasted the voice talents of Margot Kidder, whose Silhouette disappeared for the majority of the movie after her capture; Telly Savalas as Magmar, who loses the charisma battle with Cy-Kill in every regard; Michael Nouri as Boulder, who performed in nothing I’d ever seen before; and finally, friend to animation everywhere, Roddy McDowall as Nuggit. All of the series voice cast returns to appear in the movie.
I think most people blame the failure of GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords on the idea of the Rock Lords, Gobot-like transforming creatures that convert into rocks. Yes, that’s kind of a lame idea, but if introduced in a better way – say the Guardians and Renegades had to team up to fight Magmar’s army with the help of a resistance led by Boulder – the movie could have been more successful. Nothing’s saving the toys though.