If you were a typical kid in the mid-1980s -- boy or girl, it didn't matter -- you likely were a fan of the Transformers cartoon series. If you had nimble fingers, you probably also put together and took apart and put together and took apart the Hasbro Transformer robots that lined toy store shelves.

An animated feature film (starring the voice of Orson Welles) flopped in 1986, but there's no doubt that fans have long been dreaming of a live-action version of the dizzyingly destructive story. Well, special effects are today at the point where mixing gigantic alien robots with measly little Earthlings can come across as quite realistic. So when Steven Spielberg came on to the Transformers project as executive producer, his choice of directors was action man Michael Bay (Armageddon, The Rock).

Although Bay wasn't a fan of the series or the toys, he was soon surrounded by collaborators who were. The story they forged will likely please hardcore fans as well as newcomers.

For the latter, here's a brief history: Transformers are robots of various sizes from the planet Cybertron, where there's been a long-running battle between the Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (villains). When the planet's life force goes missing, and somehow ends up on Earth, both sides go after it. Landing here, they go into disguise -- shape-shifting into all kinds of vehicles (cars, trucks, planes) -- so they won't be noticed. But when an innocent teenager, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) purchases what he thinks is just a beat-up old Camaro, the human race gets "involved."

Transformers is a slam-bang, ridiculously action-packed movie that pulls no punches, especially when they're being thrown by Autobot Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who played the character on the TV show) or by Decepticon Megatron (Hugo Weaving). The fight scenes are spectacular, as are the visual bits of these big, very detailed machines doing their actual transforming -- changing before our eyes from 40-foot-tall humanoid objects into cool, normal-sized GM cars and trucks. (Never has product placement been so rampant.)

But we also get all kinds of people stories. Spielberg's original pitch to Bay was that this was about a boy who buys his first car. OK, so he was underselling the idea a little. It's also about Sam's relationship with his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White, who contribute much of the film's unexpected humor), and with Mikaela (Megan Fox). You know her -- the most beautiful girl in high school, the type who would never even glance at someone like geeky, fast-talking huckster Sam... until giant battling robots arrive on the scene.

The script takes great care in presenting some very strong female characters. You initially think that Mikaela is pretty but brainless, and that Maggie (Rachael Taylor), plugging away at a computer in the midst of Washington's male-dominated military complex, doesn't have much to offer when the world starts to go haywire. But both women turn out to be something different. Like the robots, they're transformers.

In a couple of instances, there's an overabundance of plotting. Some head-butting between the military (represented with fervor by Jon Voight) and a top-secret government group (headed up with fine comic timing by John Turturro) goes a little overboard. And even for a science fiction story, a family connection from long ago that ties Sam directly into what's happening with the robots is a stretch.

But people aren't coming to Transformers looking for a neatly told tale. They're hoping to have a mind-blowing experience. No one will be let down in that department. Visual and aural mayhem rule this film. That some of the storytelling is quite good is an added treat.

The only real difficulty some folks may have is that when the big battle scenes do erupt all over the screen, the cameras are often in too tight on the action, and it's hard to differentiate between, say, the heroic Ironhide or the bad guy Bonecrusher -- and even harder to tell who's winning which fight.

But maybe that's what the filmmakers were going after -- just enough confusion to get fans to come back for another viewing to figure it all out. Or just to come back for another dose of all that action.

It's a good bet that the director and writers are huddled together thinking about other things right now, such as how many sequels this baby will beget.

Wild and Scenic Film Festival

Sat., Jan. 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
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