Benson Yee was a Star Wars-obsessed kid when something new caught his eye in a toy store during a family vacation: Transformers — “robots in disguise” — that changed into vehicles or other objects.
“I didn’t know what they were, but I wanted one,” Yee said of the toy Hasbro introduced in 1984. His uncle bought him seven that day.
More than two decades later, Yee, 31, has 3,000 pieces in his Transformers collection and his own Web site, Ben’s World of Transformers, www.bwtf.com.
Yee is one of many men now in their late 20s and early 30s who grew up surrounded by Transformers — the toys, the cartoon, the comic books — and who are experiencing childlike anticipation of the July 3 release of the “Transformers” live action movie. The film is being executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Michael Bay of “Armageddon” and “The Rock” fame.
“If there is a way for them to reach into the core of me and bring out a piece of my childhood, I think they did that,” said Yee, an IT consultant from Elizabeth, N.J., who saw clips of the film at New York’s Toy Fair this year and plans to see the whole thing six days early at BotCon, the annual Transformers convention being held in Providence this month.
The toy line was one of the hottest toys in the 1980s for boys (and even some girls). It centered on the battle between the two factions of the robot race: Decepticons, which strive to dominate the universe, and Autobots, which believe in peaceful coexistence with humans.
It’s that mythology, based on archetypes of good and evil, the highly developed characters, the complexity and uniqueness of the toys — even the catchy cartoon show theme song that now-grown men still remember.
For many, names like Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, and Megatron, evil ruler of the Decepticons, are as burned into their consciousness as Luke Skywalker and G.I. Joe, said Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant.
“It wasn’t just part of their entertainment,” Byrne said. “It was part of their social structure, the interaction around it.”
Jules Washburn, 29, of Somerville, Mass., had several of the toys when he was a kid and first heard about the movie last year when he was checking out Spielberg’s projects online.
“I saw the ’Transformers,’ and I was like ’What!? OK, this could be completely awesome,”’ he said. “Then you notice the director is Michael Bay, who is the king of over-the-top action like ’Armageddon,’ and you’re like ’This could be huge!”’
While Washburn and his friends aren’t “the type of guys to go to opening night wearing robot outfits or anything,” he said they’re excited to see it.
Dylan Glassford, 26, an artist in Markham, Ontario, who goes by the name “Ninjatron” in Transformer fan-dom circles, said the movie’s release is validation for the hobby he’s had since he was a teenager.
“It kind of justifies the fans and what we like and what we spend our time on and our money on,” he said.
To Glassford and others, the appeal of Transformers is the strong characters and the staying power of the “more than meets the eye” concept. “Now the world gets to see in a big budget movie ... Transformers are cool and they always have been,” said Glassford, who illustrates an eight-page comic book for TransformersCon, Canada’s annual Transformer convention. “I hope that kids like it too, so that we can have a new generation of fans.”
Hasbro, of course, has been feeding the excitement, as have the studios, Dreamworks and Paramount, both owned by Viacom Inc. The first preview of the movie was released last summer before the hit “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” The 1986 “Transformers: The Movie” animated film was re-released on DVD, and Hasbro last year put out “Transformers Classics,” based on the original toy line. This month, it put out another toy line based on the new movie.
This year’s BotCon, besides featuring an early screening of the movie, will also include a tour of Hasbro’s headquarters in Pawtucket.
Brian Savage, who organizes BotCon, said the movie has raised the awareness of Transformers among the general public. While BotCon has been around since 1994, and last year drew 2,200 people, estimates for this year’s convention from June 28-July 1 range from 4,000 to as much as 8,000, Savage said, the biggest BotCon yet.
“I think we’ll have a lot more Transformers fans after July 4,” he said.