- Motto: "It's time to pull up a groove and get fabulous."
- Weapon: Twin Rocket Launchers
Back in the 80's, cartoon characters were easy: the good guys were always strong, brave and heroic, and even if they had doubts or insecurities they would always overcome them in a timely fashion and win the day in the end. Bad guys were nefarious, sinister, deceitful and often cowardly, and both the heroes and villains were almost always over-the-top. This was absolutely fine for its day; the characters didn't necessarily need depth or even characterization at times, they were easily identifiable, silly and we were happy with it. Nowadays, a lot of animation is being held to a higher standard - especially since more adults are, at least vocally, watching cartoons than thirty years ago, we demand connectable characters, interesting stories and well written dialogue. With the fandom where it is today, combined with the success of the live action movies and modern cartoons such as TF: Animated, these standards can be applied to Transformers as well. We're no longer happy with 22-minute toy commercials, we want a full-on canon so that we see the figures on our shelves as fully developed characters, not just hunks of plastic.
For the most part, Transformers: Prime not only meets these standards, it exceeds them. It's interesting enough to keep the adults watching, and just plain looks cool enough to keep the kids happy as well. Unfortunately, I have a bit of a problem with the show, and I figure it's best to just go ahead and drop the bomb: I don't think Peter Cullen is a good actor, period.
Before I elaborate, I first want to say that this has nothing to do with his voice. Peter Cullen's voice IS Optimus Prime, pure and simple. It's iconic, strong, assertive and confident, and has all the inherent qualities one would hope for in an Optimus. Frankly and ultimately, despite any argument I make here, I wouldn't want anyone else to take on the roll. His voice alone makes up for any and all of the negatives I'm about to get to.
Perhaps the most enrapturing aspect of the show, at least for me, is the script. It's wonderfully written, in terms of a fantastic plot, likeable and well-developed characters and clever dialogue. What makes it even better is the cast they have on board: every actor is able to portray the depth necessary for each character in terms of inflection, tone, demeanor, and as much character as one can put through a microphone. Peter Cullen seems to be the only exception to this. Despite his amazing voice, simply put all of his lines sound exactly the same. Every single line is delivered with the same timbre, the same attitude, as if every line is supposed to carry the same weight as "one shall stand, one shall fall." The result of this is that you have a cast of characters acting, and one character pontificating, making every scene incredibly one-sided and Prime himself seem one dimensional. Despite his 21st century look, Prime is still acting like he's in the 80's, and despite the script's obvious attempt to throw in as many memorable one-liners as possible there's still enough depth to the work that the fault lies with the actor, or possibly the voice director.
A thought did occur to me when pondering this, however. For a moment, let's take a look at the character of Optimus Prime. He is, for all intents and purposes, the epitome of the hero. He's incorruptible, courageous to a fault who holds himself to a high moral standard, moreso than anyone under his command. He's the perfect leader, able to make a stand against injustice and have the strength of body and mind to back it up. While different mediums have different takes on him, and more often than not an intense back story, Optimus Prime simply wouldn't be the iconic leader of the Autobots we all think of when we hear his name without these qualities. Take, for example, TF: Animated's take on the character. TFA Prime was a much more complicated character, with an excellent portrayal by David Kaye, but many of the fans, myself included, see this incarnation as a completely separate character. I for one was very pleased with the direction they took, but without the seemingly one-dimensional good guy archetypal qualities I can't see him as the same. What can be concluded from this is that the one-dimensional personality that I find so out of place in TF: Prime is a necessary part of the character.
But what if this isn't just a case of simplistic writing or mediocre voice work? One could argue that, even across many canons and mediums, the ultimate hero we all know Optimus Prime to be is a choice. Perhaps in a situation like TF: Prime, with a small band of Autobots on a foreign, distant world, heavily outnumbered and with little resources, and with the end of the war, the end of the Decepticons and the possibility of returning to Cybertron so remote an idea as to be virtually unachievable, Prime knows that as a leader he must find a way to keep his troops motivated. So he creates a persona: the quintessential leader, a bold and daring soldier that is stalwart, immovable and perfectly reliable. A leader so flawless that all of his soldiers are instilled with the confidence that no matter how hopeless things seem, no matter what happens or in what way, as long as they stay with Optimus they'll always come back alive. Well, except Cliffjumper.
A persona like this would require enormous psychological effort. Despite his own doubts, fears, and insecurities, Prime would have to make sure to never show any sign of weakness. Every fiber of his being, from his actions and battlefield heroics to his posture and speaking has to reflect this indomitable spirit. Given the toll the war has taken on all of them, it's easy to imagine that the sheer effort it takes to keep this persona up at all times would make one sound stilted, even cartoonish. If we decide to accept this take on Prime's character, it has two consequences. One, Optimus Prime becomes much more interesting and much more complicated. Every word and action must be consciously and intentionally chosen, which would even account for the fact that Prime speaks slower and more intensely than any other character. In addition, when things go wrong, especially when the very nature of the character conflicts with the reality of the situation, it becomes a much more convoluted and involved scene. Take, for instance, one episode where Ratchet chews Prime out for never having gone through with killing Megatron, despite numerous opportunities to do so. If we decide to look at the character in this new light, we suddenly find a leader not only struggling with his own flaws and demons regarding his adversary, but his ethical code and carefully crafted persona, used to instill his troops with desperately needed hope, is the very thing causing them to lose faith in him as a leader.
The second consequence of this take is that my entire argument against Peter Cullen's performance is negated; now the one-dimensional acting becomes an intentional choice. Unfortunately I didn't think to ask Mr. Cullen about his acting choices during the panel at Botcon this year, so I don't have any insight as to how much of the voice we hear every episode is Peter Cullen and how much is Optimus Prime. Ultimately though, as I said, I wouldn't want any casting changes. Regardless of the reasons why it sounds the way it does, the voice in and of itself is so superb as to carry the character. After the end of the show, when the next series starts, if they decide to make the Optimus in that series like the character we think of when we hear the name, I sincerely hope Cullen will sign up. And if they decide to turn the leader of the Autobots into a different character, despite any visual or name similarities, I hope they use a different actor to reflect that.
Well, that's all just my opinion. What do you guys think?