If you're relatively new to the Transformers experience and looking for the perfect kid-friendly feature-length introduction to the world-renowned "robots in disguise" and the franchise's new "Aligned" continuity family in particular (the same continuity family as the video games "Transformers: War for Cybertron" & "Transformers: Fall of Cybertron", the novels "Transformers: Exodus", "Transformers: Exiles" & "Transformers: Retribution" and the new Flash-animated kid-focused series "Transformers: Rescue Bots"; basically it cherry-picks all the best stuff from every continuity - describing each character as a mix of traits from each continuity - thus far, from Generation 1 through the Bayverse films and Animated, and is now THE basis for the future of Transformers storytelling, compared to the first 25 years of the franchise lore - which was created on the fly, with continuity reboots common and deep-rooted mythology established after the storytelling had already begun), then look no further than "Transformers: Prime - Darkness Rising", now available on DVD from SHOUT! Factory.
If you're a longtime fan of the original series, then, my friends, you're in for a real treat because Peter Cullen and Frank Welker have reprised the voice-over roles that made them household names in the 1980's: Cullen's performance as Optimus Prime stills carries the calm, dignified sadness inspired by his late brother Larry, a former Marine who fought in the Vietnam War ("Peter, don't be a Hollywood hero, be a real hero. Real heroes don't yell and act tough; they are tough enough to be gentle, so control yourself.") - as if the Great War has affected Optimus so deeply that he's always crying deep down inside - and Welker's new version of everyone's favorite bucket-headed bad boy Megatron sounds quieter, much more menacing and nowhere near the bombastic, raspy-voiced, loud-mouthed ham that the original was, though as the series goes on, he does have his moments.
There's one constant throughout the franchise that helps viewers connect with the Autobots: a group of humans (usually kids, in this case Jackson Darby, voiced by Josh Keaton from The Spectacular Spider-Man; Miko Nakadai, voiced by Tania Gunadi from Disney Channel's Aaron Stone; and Rafael Esquivel, voiced by Andy Pessoa from The Amazing Spider-Man) who not only learn their secret and help in their fight against the Decepticons in any small way but help them adapt to life on Earth in their off-hours (a classic example from Generation 1 has Spike Witwicky teaching the Autobots how to play basketball; even Optimus gets in on the slam-dunking action), and the way the 'Bots connect with the kids over the course of this movie helps set the tone for the series:
Bumblebee & Raf, being the youngest of their respective age groups (and, as such, the series' kid-appeal characters), hit it off right away, especially when you consider that Raf is the only kid present who can understand the Autobot scout's R2-D2-style beeps, squeals and whistles.
Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson) may be the team's heavy hitter (as a former Wrecker, it kinda comes with the territory), but when it comes to Miko, he's as gentle with her as an elephant plucking a wildflower with its trunk.
After a shaky start, Arcee (Sumalee Montano from The Young and the Restless, among others) & Jack are soon tearing it up through the Nevada backroads; ultimately, when he decides to walk away after helping rescue Special Agent William Fowler (the Autobots' liaison with the U.S. government; voiced by Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters) from Starscream (Steve Blum from Wolverine & the X-Men), she gets him to come back to the fight, as the following dialogue from Part 5 indicates:
Jack: Arcee, really, Miko already tried. Tell Optimus I respect him big-time, but if you're at war with the Decepticons, there's nothing I can do to help.
Arcee: Optimus didn't send me, and no one's asking for your help.
J: Okay, so if we both agree that I'm not warrior material -
A: Jack, I just lost someone I cared about. Maybe it's the grief talking; maybe you're growing on me; whatever it is, I'm just not ready to say goodbye.
In the end, he finds in her the guiding spirit of the big sister he's always needed, despite what the shippers out there may think, and by film's end it's pretty clear that he's not ready to say goodbye, either.
At first, Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs from Re-Animator) doesn't want anything to do with the kids, but as time goes on, he comes to understand what they have to offer Team Prime from a civilian (and human) standpoint, and eventually he connects best with the equally tech-savvy Raf.
And last, but certainly far from least, there's Optimus Prime himself: as the leader, whatever the series or continuity (for the sake of this review, I'm omitting Shattered Glass), he strives to be a positive male role model and father figure not just for his team but for any humans aiding them in their fight against the 'Cons, and it's no different with Jack, Miko & Raf (in Season 1's "Masters & Students", he sees the school science fair as an excellent opportunity for his team and the kids to learn more about each others' home-world and culture). Also, it doesn't hurt to practice a little diplomacy by trying to convince the Decepticon du jour to stray from Megatron's path and either side with the Autobots or lead the 'Cons toward peace (Skyquake - voiced by Richard Green - and his split-spark twin brother Dreadwing - voiced by Tony Todd, aka The Fallen from "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" - have no real grudge against the Autobots but are loyal to Megatron above all else). However, one can only push the Big O so far before he starts pushing - and eventually hitting - back - Megatron ultimately proved that he was beyond all hope of redemption in "One Shall Fall" (and the compilation movie "One Shall Stand") after he almost killed Raf, resulting in Optimus realizing just how foolish he was to believe that the Autobots and Decepticons would find a way to bury the hatchet and end the war peacefully; the tone of Optimus's voice before the fight begins ("Megatron, today you answer for your crimes against Cybertron and against humanity!") tells the audience that this isn't the last son of the Primes speaking: this is a battle-hardened warrior whose every punch, kick, gunshot and swing of his sword is fueled by a potent & explosive cocktail of the Matrix of Leadership and the rage felt by a dad going after the bully who's been hurting his children, and HE IS PISSED!
As the movie (and the series) progresses, however, we're given a harsh reminder of something that's easy to forget in this post-9/11 world: whether it's being waged in our own backyards, overseas or a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (yes, a deliberate nod to STAR WARS), there's absolutely, positively NOTHING glorious about war - it ruins the lives of everyone caught in the crossfire, it tears families apart, and it's fought for the stupidest reasons. Also, as befitting the "Transformers" franchise, we're reminded that while the Autobots and Decepticons may be tough, they're not invincible - Optimus, his team and their liaisons with the U.S. government learn this the hard way after the death of Cliffjumper (voiced by none other than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) by Starscream's hand, or rather, talon, proving the trend established by executive producer Jeff Kline: once a character is killed off, they stay dead, and Dark Energon-fueled zombie resurrections don't count. Needless to say, the Decepticon heavies (some of whom turn out to be, at the least, more honorable than Megatron - a trait inherited from Dinobot in "Transformers: Beast Wars" and Starscream's portrayal in "Transformers: Armada") don't fare much better through the series: Skyquake gets ripped apart in midair by Bumblebee and forced into a crash landing in "Masters & Students", Breakdown (Adam Baldwin from Halo 3: ODST, for starters) is butchered by Airachnid (Gina Torres from Firefly) in Season 2's "Crossfire", Hardshell (David Kaye, aka the voice from Megatron from Beast Wars, Beast Machines and the Unicron Trilogy) gets his tailpipe handed to him by Miko in "Hurt", and Dreadwing is gunned down by Megatron before he can kill Starscream in "Regeneration".
Speaking of Dark Energon, once Megatron reveals just what the "Blood of Unicron the Chaos-Bringer" can do (in this case, bring a dead Cybertronian back to life and turn it into a mindless zombie berserker), the genius (or rather, insanity) of his latest plan to conquer Earth becomes apparent: he intends to send a big hunk of the stuff to Cybertron via the SpaceBridge, raise an army of the planet's dead, bring them back to Earth and usher in the ultimate zombie apocalypse.
Presentation: every frame of this 1:46:19 adventure (created by editing the 5-part inaugural miniseries into a feature-length movie and removing all the scene repeats & commercial break fade-outs), from the opening shot of Cliffjumper to the closing shot of the Autobots & the kids riding off into the sunset as Optimus delivers his closing monologue, is presented in glorious 16:9 Widescreen, and comes with your choice of sound: English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or English stereo (turns out the Spanish stereo label was a misprint), all beautifully reinforced by a score composed by Brian Tyler and recorded by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Allan Wilson conducting - a fitting tip of the hat to the scores composed for the live-action trilogy by Steve Jablonsky and recorded by Nick Glennie-Smith conducting the Hollywood Studio Symphony. In short, the sound and picture quality are on par with the series proper (I'm one of those middle ground completionists who's bought both the compilation movies and the season sets - as of this latest edit, I've bought every Stateside DVD release, including the Target-exclusive "Dawn of the Beast").
In the end, whatever the genre, wherever or whenever it's set, the lesson at the heart of every story about the never-ending battle between good and evil is clearly in play here, and it's as old as time itself: life, love, courage, hope and the light are, and forever will be, infinitely stronger than death, hate, fear, despair and the darkness.