-By Daniel Eagan

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If games can become hit movies, why not toys? Introduced in 1984 by Hasbro, the Transformers franchise quickly grew to include comic books, cartoons, and the ever-expanding world of the toys themselves, metal and plastic objects like cars and trucks that open out into warrior robots. Molded with care and precision by director Michael Bay and an army of technicians, Transformers should provide a boost in income to every corner of the mutant robot world.

Frankly, the franchise could use a hit. Although they starred in an animated feature in 1988, the Transformers have languished in recent years, despite efforts by Hasbro to repackage them as Beast Wars, Robots in Disguise and Alternators. Before he left the current project, writer John Rogers came up with a blueprint for a screenplay that respected the storyline for the original toys while updating the setting to contemporary suburbia.

As the movie gradually reveals, good Transformers known as Autobots are in a race with bad Transformers known as Decepticons for the Allspark, an important metal cube. Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving), the head Decepticon, has been frozen in the Arctic for a century or so. Other Decepticons crash-land in Qatar, where they destroy a U.S. Army base.

Meanwhile, chief Autobot Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) assigns Bumblebee (Mark Ryan) to guard Sam (Shia LaBeouf), who unwittingly holds the key to the Allspark. An overgrown but still nerdy high-schooler, Sam is more interested in impressing Mikaela (Megan Fox), an improbably hot classmate better suited to a Coors Lite billboard, than in saving the planet. The two soon become captives of federal agent Simmons (John Turturro), part of a government scheme to thaw Megatron.

Also in on the plot: beefy computer hacker Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson), who along with Aussie blonde Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor) can track the evil Decepticons' progress through the government's computer networks. With Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight) and Qatar veteran Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel), they will all try in vain to bring a human dimension to a story that is essentially about hunks of scrap metal blowing each other up.

Michael Bay may be the ideal director for this sort of project. With an obsessive attention to detail and the ability to make narrative sense out of complete balderdash, he gives Transformers a pacing and drive the story never really merits. Some scenes, notably those set in Qatar, seem darker and more violent than the target audience may expect. But most of Transformers is pitched at a lighthearted level just below parody. The likeable LaBeouf and manic Turturro supply some pleasant humor, while Fox is photographed so lovingly that she could divert even pre-adolescents from the whirring, clanking junk heaps that dominate the film.

If you never fell under the spell of Transformers as a child, this will be the most gratuitous film of the year, an adrenalized, testosterone-heavy stew of petrochemical-derived mayhem. But if you grew up imagining life with Ratchet, Ironhide, Bonecrusher and all their robot friends, Transformers could be just what you've been waiting for.

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