80s CARTOONS AND THE DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME

80s CARTOONS IN HELL

Don’t introduce your kids to 80s cartoons; it was something I figured out very quickly at the beginning of the pandemic. Well, maybe not the manic beginning-beginning, but the sorta’ middle-beginning after the clouds of dystopia parted.

I honestly thought the whole world was about to go tribal. The power would go out initially, and flash-forward a year later, we would be living off the land in a yurt made from old suitcases.

I wasn’t entirely sure how we would go from living in our home with running water to a suitcase-yurt in the forest. Being a Gen X guy with no survival skills, I assumed it would look like Station Eleven. A book where we witness the fall of modern convenience humanity (97% of people die in a pandemic) and fast forward to post-apocalyptic colonialism.

THE SUPER MOVE I PLANNED FOR INTRUDERS (HASBRO)

Therefore, I kept a golf club next to the front door.

The entire plan revolved around some herald of this grizzled new age appearing on our front doorstep, whether it be home hijacker, zombie, or doomsayer. I would bring the club end down on the skull of that rogue, and then we would sneak our family into the woods.

And just in case I wasn’t available to open the door for the apocalypse, I told my wife about the golf club. “Honey, I’m putting a golf club behind the door just in case.”

“Just in case of what, you don’t play golf,” she was saying.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING-BEGINNING

I wanted to say, “look, we might get the harbinger of some terrible new reality. Take the golf club and smash the motherfucker in the face. Then break some glass and sprinkle it all over the front stoop. I’ll bring the go-bags, and we will sneak off into the forest.”

And then, she would start researching 5150.

My escape plan and the need for it was a factual truth I knew would sound batshit the moment it left the safety of my own brain and spilled from between my lips. So, I kept it to myself.

“Just in case of Latter-day Saints,” I said, trying to keep it vague.

She frowned.

“Just trust me— we have terrible leadership, and people are auctioning off-hand sanitizers for thousands of dollars. Society could break down completely in the next few days.”

She continued to frown, and I bet she marked the golf club location right then—in case she needed to use it on me.

Fortunately, after society’s self-inflicted toilet paper and meat shortages began to subside, I transitioned into a new normal. Joining my wife and the rest of the world in this sorta’ mild-apocalypse that wasn’t as Hollywood as I had imagined it would be.

Speaking of Hollywood, that was also the point in the pandemic after Disney+ began to lose its powers over my kids. And the host of other channels we had subscribed to were just as anemic.

While we as parents in the U.S. reached it at different times, most probably recognize this point of the pandemic. The novelty of no school wore out for our children, and their small terrifying eyes began to fix on us. “What do I do now, daddy?”

AMAZON PRIME, NOT RODIMUS PRIME

Children wanted their parents to start engineering things for them to do. And our jobs still expected us to work, and it was a terrifying place to be.

My answer was to load the Amazon cart with everything that helped me stave off boredom in the 80s; comic books, music, Legos. I was convinced my eight-year-old would get into the “X-Cutioner’s Song” X-Men storyline as much as I had.

“C’mon, kiddo, I loved this as a kid,” was a frequent refrain as I set her up in front of, say, Thundarr the Barbarian. I was hoping to buy myself a half-hour of unmolested work.

My daughter wasn’t impressed.  

80s CARTOONS WERE EARLY FANTASY SPORTS

80s cartoons were a toy-selling vehicle funded by toy manufacturers, written and drawn by bored adults (I assume). They often ended happy, with a teaching moment tacked to the end that had nothing to do with the bulk of what we just watched. I loved it.

There were only a certain number of toys I could collect on a meager allowance as a kid. And buying a toy meant I was transferring a bit of loyalty to that character. 

When I bought, say, Serpentor or Shockwave, I obviously wanted them to lose overall, but I didn’t want them to embarrass me in any particular episode. I wanted them to do well.

It seems a bit like Fantasy Football now. As kids, we would watch the cartoons each week and check all the boxes for a good week for our toys by how well they did in an episode. Optimus Prime would be that QB who never missed. 

The actual game was in the bit players. If Brawn got in a pivotal performance, it would make my week (Brawn being my first ever Transformer).

Or if the Dreadnok, Zanzibar didn’t do anything too embarrassing, win-win. Zanzibar had a dope skiff with missiles. And, according to his toy card, he brushed his teeth with grape soda. So cool. 

ZANZIBAR FROM THE CAYMANS (HASBRO)

THE MOVIE MIGHT BREAK YOUR HEART

Movies made from 80s cartoons were starkly different; they were dark. And sometimes, these entertainment vehicles tried to clear the slate for newer toys by murdering the older characters.

One of my favorite toy lines, the Transformers, introduced a slew of new characters at the expense of the older ones. It was a massacre. And it all happened in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

Imagine going to the first Iron Man movie. In the opening fifteen minutes, Tony Stark is murdered off. We are introduced to the Guardians of the Galaxy, a universe away. 

That is how jarring the Transformer movie was.

My first Transformer, Brawn, whom I snuck into the theater with me, witnessed his own onscreen death and that of most of the rest of the Autobots in the very beginning. 

I was so traumatized I left Brawn in that theater where he had been sitting in the seat next to mine. He had let me down.

COSMIC SLOP

And in this carnage, we were given Rodimus Prime, the new (toy) leader of the Autobots. Rodimus had the stink of adult thinktank produced hero.

Rodimus’ name originally was “Hot Rod” before taking up the mantle of autoboot leadership by the end of the film. Never mind that Rodimus screwed up in battle and essentially got Optimus killed.

He was essentially a robot version of Maverick from Top Gun. Young punk convinced he was right at all times, fuck-up that gets others killed. And unconventional to the point of being a highly effective fighter.

I mean, his name was “Hot Rod.” We kids would totally forgive him for having Optimus murdered, right?

Rodimus the toy was a fucking mess, transforming from robot into muted red sports car camper with muted techy flames, an airplane-winged spoiler, chrome exhausts everywhere… And his camper attachment transformed into a gun turret.

I can even imagine the cocaine-fueled high-fives in the boardroom that followed the Rodimus presentation to the rest of the Hasbros…  Great job, guys.

Rodimus was “the Homer” of Transformers—basically a Delorean-Winnebego with a shit paint job.

FALLEN TOYS

And yes, I’m still bitter. I essentially lost two toys that one afternoon, and I had to figuratively bury my Optimus Prime toy.

There was a friend on my block who always had all the newest, most expensive Transformers; he had Omega Supreme for the love of God.

Anyway, this friend had an edict for any toy battle we all showed up to; Prime was dead, and no one could bring Optimus to Transformer playdates. And because he had the best toys in the neighborhood, his rules for play had weight. We had to follow the Transformer canon.

I tried smuggling Prime to one of those playdates, sticking him in a bookbag and only bringing Prime. “My mom packed Optimus; she didn’t know he was dead,” I lied.

“Here, you can borrow Kup, but I want him back.” As if I would somehow grow fond of this shit aquamarine-colored pickup truck that I would steal it.  

Should I mention that this friend had Rodimus too? Of course he did—and Galvatron. It must have been right after he saw the movie that his parents eased his own pain of a world without Optimus by buying him the shit-painted sports car usurper and the new gun.

THE DUKE AND THE DICK

Word is that Hasbro similarly planned to kill off Duke with the G.I. Joe animated movie. Duke was the longtime leader of the Joes and hero of the cartoons. And his half-brother Lieutenant Falcon was the new toy on the block.  

Falcon was a brash but talented soldier, a second-generation Green Beret (I doubt the Green Berets do legacy hires). And like Rodimus, Falcon was unconventional; the 80s were the era of the anti-hero.

And I assume, like Rodimus, Falcon would take over the leadership of his franchise. Nevermind Falcon fucked up and got his half-brother impaled by an erect snake-spear hurled by super-terrorist Serpentor. 

Duke’s last words were a belabored “yo…Joe…”

And then Scarlett, whose file card doesn’t mention any medical training, announces “he’s gone into a coma” the moment he appears to slip the mortal coil into black, black death. 

Maybe it was just a lucky guess on Scarlett’s part.

NO MEDICAL HISTORY (HASBRO)

Or maybe that line was added in later after the barrage of angry letters from adults who bought their children Transformer movie tickets and got a shriveling mess of a young adult in return.

MOVIES OF 80s CARTOONS

That was the risk unwitting parents ran dropping their kids off at full-length movies made from beloved 80s cartoons.

Rainbow Brite, in her movie, killed an evil princess with a rainbow. The evil princess was trying to suicide herself by crashing her spaceship into some far-off magical planet that controls the happiness of the rest of the universe. So, warranted—yet still dark AF for a character created by Hallmark Cards.

Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer was remarkably gloomy for a movie about a magical tween and her magical talking horse that gallops on top of rainbows, dumping star sprinkles on everyone below.

There were menacing robot overlords that could zap out free will with their eye lasers. There were enslaved sprites, the cute dwarf-sheep creatures that looked dressed for an Olivia Newton-John music video.

And it was rated G.

My Little Pony: The Movie starring Danny Devito and like one pony that isn’t Rainbow Sparkle Face or Pinky Pie. And Spike.

The original MLP did have the “Smooze,” an unsettling dark blob-like substance that consumes everything in its wake. 

The Smooze was far too familiar to anyone who watched the animated Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. In that, there was a sugary, all-consuming blob called “the Greedy.” And “the Greedy” was absolutely terrifying.

I’ve had over 40 years of nightmares because of “the Greedy.” And that shit was also rated G.

MIRACULOUS MECH

G.I. Joe was just one of the many gun-themed violent cartoons we kids loved.

The Centurions were one-man-bands of militarized awesome. They were homogeneous heroes in mildly mech specialty suits that transformed them into one-man airplanes, submarines, etc.

They made the dudes at the infamous 2020 Subway sandwich gun rally look like amateurs.

SATELITE WITH A LOT OF CLAW GAME ARMS (WB)

Though the real hero was the Centurions satellite with the 50 grappling arms protruding from it. It could instantly beam weapons or heroes anywhere on the surface of the planet.

I assume the oversupply of arms were for if it became necessary to grab the Hubble Telescope and hold it hostage. In case whichever country was funding all of this satellite beaming mech shit decided to start funding school or basic science instead.

Crystal Kane hung out with an orangutan on that super satellite the “Sky Vault,” which could beam weapons and animals worldwide. I’m not sure why Krystal doesn’t just beam the entire collection of snakes from the Indiana Jones “Well of Souls” directly on top of whomever the Centurions are fighting, but whatever.

Unrealistic tech was the hallmark of violent 80s Cartoons. The men and women of the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand or M.A.S.K. had some incredibly unrealistic tech. Vehicles that transformed into entirely different vehicles.

CREEPY ROBOT/ USELESS KID (LBS COMMUNICATIONS)

Oh, and with all the other mech porn cartoons of the 80s, a useless kid is part of the team. The kid in M.A.S.K. has a robot that looks like Blinky™ (Which I suggest you watch if you enjoy being disturbed).

And like GI Joe, the violent cartoons had flame-throwers that spit flames and missiles that exploded, but for some reason, actual bullets were a bridge too far. All the guns shot lasers.

A CARTOON CHARACTER THAT MURDERS PEOPLE ON HBO

One of my favorite violent 80s cartoons was Rambo the Force of Freedom. It was also a toy selling G.I. Joe wannabe with a main character most kids had only seen on HBO in all of his murderous glory.

That Rambo was a stone-cold killer in the movies only added to his cartoon caché. I kept expecting the animated Rambo to cut some cartoon neck wide open. “To survive a war, you must become war.”

I watched First Blood long after my parents were asleep.

“Why does Rambo not kill the bad guys like he does in the movie?”

“It’s a cartoon.”

“But why was he killing police officers in the movie?”

“Vietnam,” my dad said, and then, “wait, who said you could watch ‘First Blood’?!”

John Rambo was a much more subdued character in Rambo the Force of Freedom. Don’t get me wrong, there was a ton of action and explosions, just no blood leaping out from massive knife holes.

And, B.T.W., did “the force of freedom” describe Rambo’s team or the act of forcing other state actors to adopt freedom? Or was it both?

YOU’RE NOT GOING TURBO, ARE YOU

Rambo had a pal, Turbo, who was fantastic; I totally wanted his toy. And that is saying a lot as the Rambo toys were friggin’ gigantic. My sister once referred to them as “doll-sized,” and I couldn’t ever shake that thought when anyone asked me if I wanted Rambo for Christmas.

TURBO WAS SOOO AWESOME (COLECO)

I did want Turbo, a racecar enthusiast and Air Force Lieutenant who entered fights wearing a helmet that shot missiles.

Turbo’s head was a rocket launcher.

Never mind that if anyone were to just aim a laser at the helmet when Turbo entered the fray, Turbo would become the headless “force of freedom.” And at the best of times, Turbo was getting a face full of jet-wash every time he launched a missile (I bet he never had to shave).

He was still my hero. He had a helmet with exposed missiles perched on it. So cool.

The only creature who could possibly rival the awesome mixed with irresponsibility around jet-fuel in the 80s Cartoons universes would be Shadow. Shadow was the Centurions’ dog.

And, Shadow would occasionally beam into battle with her own suit that shot missiles. Which, if you get nervous around unleashed dogs, just imagine an unleashed dog with the ability to fire rockets.

UNLEASHED DOG (WARNER BROS)

Any of y’all still wondering why Gen Xers are so messed up? It was the 80s cartoons.

And when these cartoons weren’t murdering off our favorite characters or fitting man’s best friend with man’s best weaponry, they could be casually racist, ageist, and ill-advised. Take the Chipmunk’s Adventure.

LIKE JULES VERNE ONLY NOT LIKE JULES VERNE AT ALL

The Chipmunk’s Adventure was one of the 80s cartoons I dusted off to keep my elementary-aged kid busy for a couple hours during the infancy of our pandemic lockdown. 

The only bit I remembered was the great sing-off battle the Chipmunks and Chipettes had amongst the Greek ruins. 

And that I once watched it four times with one theater ticket.

On paper, the movie must have seemed like a winner to my parents in the 80s, too. The adventure included a balloon race around the world. My parents no doubt remembered Jules Verne’s opus, Around the World in 80 Days.

Mom and dad probably nodded approvingly, thinking us kids were about to get cultured, and then dropped us off at the movie theater for the rest of the day. 

Actually, now that I think about it, my parents once dropped me off unattended to watch Total Recall (Rated R for a Martian exposing her 3 breasts and lots of blood) when I was 13.

FREE MOVIES

That is what our parents did when there were no smartphones housing all the information and entertainment in the world. They could get us out of their hair for an entire afternoon by dropping us off at a movie theater.

B.T.W., the 80s, and lack of smartphones made extended number 2 bathroom visits incredibly tedious. I remember spilling out whatever was in my wallet, searching for reading material.

Anyway, the expectation was we would sit in the theater. When the movie ended, we would duck our heads, hiding until the movie restarted.

My father liked to say that the theaters didn’t really make money on the tickets; it was the concessions where the money was made. He said this but never gave us any extra money to spend on more popcorn.

And speaking of bathrooms, the general rule was you could use them in your first showing, and after that, you just had to hold it. After all, our parents weren’t picking us up until dinnertime.

So, if we were caught leeching free showings by theater staff, we would have to sit in the lobby and stare at our hands for hours.

80s ANTIQUITY

So in 2020, I watched the Chipmunk Adventure with my kid. And I watched it with adult eyes—here was cigarette smoking, hard alcohol drinking, and mildly imperious tones. 

Hell, the whole reason for the adventure was to unwittingly smuggle diamonds around the world. And with all the blood spilled over these rocks throughout history, I can only imagine that the Chipmunks and Chipettes were a part of a dark, dark machine of human misery.

And there were stereotypes everywhere the anthropomorphic rodents landed. Sombreros and maracas appeared immediately when the Chipmunks showed up in Mexico. Miss Miller, the doddering old babysitter, was susceptible to car accidents and trickery.

MISS MILLER WAS A BAD DRIVER (THE SAMUEL GOLDWYN COMPANY)

There was a showdown with a spear-wielding jungle tribe whose grass hut village was adorned with skulls and spears. Visitors to this fictional tribe should be forewarned that the tribe had the propensity of randomly kidnapping passersby they mistook for one of their gods.

And anyone traveling with the kidnapped member would have to choose slavery to the “Prince of Plenty” or be impaled. The kidnapped wouldn’t need to sweat their decision too much; either way, the tribe would butcher them whenever the next full moon occurred.

The sacrificial ceremony occurs by firelight, with drums, and villagers either dancing or doing jumping jacks. Ultimately the tribe’s plan is to sacrifice off the Chipmunks with fire and crocodiles.

CHIPMUNK SACRIFICE (THE SAMUEL GOLDWYN COMPANY)

Fortunately, the tribe loved the song “Wooly Bully,” which was the Chipmunks’ salvation. And doubling back on the stereotyping, the tribe collectively pronounce their Ls as Rs. So… Yea. “Worry burry.”  

CHASING HOT AIR BALLOONS ON CAMELS

The Chipettes, in their portion of the balloon adventure, wind up in the Middle East, where they are chased through a desert by folks riding camels holding their scimitars high.

The girls do a great job fending off grappling hooks being thrown to yank their balloon from the sky. Unfortunately, while playing defense against the horsemen er camel men, they unwittingly crash into a collection of date palms.

Once captured, the henchmen bring the Chipettes to their boss, a young prince who decides to marry them all at dawn. As a wedding gift, the prince gives the Chipettes a baby penguin poached directly from Antarctica.

Is it possible that young minds could be led to think folks from that part of the world are rich poachers that have a shit load of wives and put things they want to be protected in a room full of hissing cobras?

Oh yeah, the Chipettes’ diamonds were sealed in a room full of snakes that could be charmed by belly dancing Chipettes. That happened. (And Crystal Kane could beam that whole scene right on top of fucking Doc Terror and end his rein of terror).

IT WASN’T JUST DIRECT TO VIDEO FILMS

It’s not at all to say that movies based on 80s cartoons exclusively gave us disturbing feature-length animated films. Disney loved murder, too. 

Good guys took their dirt naps early in the films and were later joined by the bad guys.

I seem to remember a lot of falling for Disney villains. Gaston fell from an impossibly high castle perch. We don’t see him land or anything, but the split second of skulls twinkling from Gaston’s eyes as he falls is a good indication of his fate.

GASTON’S EYE SKULLS (DISNEY)

The bad guy in Disney’s Oliver & Company drives a motorcycle face-first into a speeding train before he’s thrown over the Brooklyn Bridge, an assortment of bits and fire.

I bet the deaths were “off-camera” enough or implied so much that the movies got to keep their G ratings. 

I don’t know why anyone would sweat ratings in the 80s anyway. When I was 11, an upperclassman at my military school sent me to the corner gas station during church to buy him cigarettes. Age limits didn’t mean shit to anybody in the 80s.

You still have to give Disney props for how they murdered the villain, Ursula, in the Little Mermaid. Ursula gains control of King Triton’s trident, thereby controlling the whims of the entire ocean and more. She grows out to the size of a giantess and marvels at her power to wreak havoc.

And unfortunately for Ursula, she isn’t paying attention to the prince as he sails a jagged shipwreck directly into her soft parts. Ursula bleeds out, slumps, and perishes as the world cheers and rainbows bloom.

TAKE A WILD RIDE INSTEAD

Racism and death and misery were, arguably, prolific ingredients in Mickey Mouse’s early arsenal. See Dumbo, Peter Pan, et al. And there were entire films, Song of the South, that are so socially awful you won’t ever see them emerge from the vaunted “Disney Vault.”

I was shocked when watching a Current Affair-ish show in the late 80s that described their newest attraction, Splash Mountain. A ride that was based on the Song of the South. Hadn’t anyone seen that movie?!

And I’m not adding virtue to my past here; I was an insufferable little shit who was sent to two military schools. It was pretty evident that ride wouldn’t float on for long. 

Apparently, last year was enough for Disney to punt on reconstruction fairy tales (Disney indicated plans had been in the works to change the ride for a while).

Why didn’t they give the Splash Mountain theme to Toad, of Toad’s Wild Ride fame? Toad is a legend; he tussled with the Headless Horseman and was an associate of Upstate New York’s fictional Ichabod Crane.

I say “Upstate” both because everything, not New York City, is “Upstate,” and the inspiration for Ichabod Crane was possibly from Kinderhook. Both of which I covered here.  

THE 80s WERE SUSPECT

There was a lot of messed-up shit in the 80s. It wasn’t just the cartoons or greedy toy companies. Most parents worked and just had their older children return to an empty house after school.

We watched our favorite 80s cartoons as “latchkey kids.”

When I had the Chicken Pox, I spent most of my time alone in the house while my parents worked, and I was eating Jello on the couch watching whatever was on for hours. There weren’t many channels back then, so every morning, it was Denise Austin.

The 80s and how precarious they were for kids could fill a collection of blog posts. I won’t prattle on any further about how crazy our parents were for leaving us home alone all the time. I also still love Denise Austin.

We were thoroughly entertained by the cartoons and toys that occasionally broke our hearts.

I guess it’s no accident that retro toys are reimagined and rereleased. We’re in our 40s and 50s these days, but we still love Optimus Prime.

The 80s were also a time of unrivaled toy play, where the toys’ creativity, complexity, and astounding colors enhanced creative young minds and the adventures they concocted.

I have never been able to encourage that level of toy play with my own kids. 

For our children today, there are just far more rewarding distractions that take far less effort.

So maybe introduce 80s cartoons to your kid and hand them some of the Insecticons you’ve had moth-balled in your mother’s basement for years. Keep your fingers crossed the magic of toy play becomes a regular occurrence.  

Just be prepared to have that heart to heart when they find out Optimus Prime is fucking dead.

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