Now That’s a Cannon Film: Robotech the Movie

People just won’t shut up about the Robotech movie. Obviously, I’m not talking about the Cannon movie of the 1980s–I’m talking about the one Hollywood is really going to make any day now.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Hollywood Robotech movie being “in the works” and what a ride it’s been. Every couple of years a new name pops up as being attached to this very real project that’s going to happen very soon. Meanwhile, that new Voltron cartoon did really well, attracted a lot of fans and basically provided a blueprint for what a great Robotech reboot could look like but, nah, those Hollywood lights are callin’.

Just the other day Sony (who has been putting Robotech on the “fast track” for a year or two, now) announced director Andy Muschietti is attached. Once upon a time, Tobey Maguire was attached. Then Leonardo DiCaprio was attached, maybe. The guy who wrote G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra was attached, too. San Diego Comic Con is this weekend, so more news might drop at the Robotech panel Thursday night. Perhaps, finally, the future is now.

Probably not, though.

But idle speculation on what’s sure to be a disappointing Hollywood adaption (IF IT GETS MADE) is boring and you don’t call on me to talk about anything new and relevant – so let’s talk about the old Robotech movie instead.

Robotech the Movie: The Untold Story doesn’t show up in the fantastic Cannon Films documentary, Electric Boogaloo. That’s a shame because it sounds like it had an absolutely nightmarish production. With a limited budget that wouldn’t allow for live-action (we’d have been so lucky) or new animation, Cannon and Harmony Gold decided to adapt Megazone 23 [1985], the first big “hit” of the OVA format. Megazone 23 wasn’t a bad choice, because not only was it a great movie but it shared lots of production staff with the original shows used adapted for Robotech. Perhaps the film’s low-budget woes could be saved by science. The science of splicing unrelated cartoons together.

Megazone 23 was created by Noburo Ishiguro’s Artland studio in conjunction with design studio ARTMIC. As a result, it feels a lot like the ARTLAND-produced Super Dimension Fortress Macross and the ARTMIC-designed Genesis Climber MOSPEADA that formed the first and third parts of Robotech, respectively. It also had lots of familiar names on the staff list, including Macross alums Ishiguro (direction), Haruhiko Mikimoto (character design), Toshihiro Hirano (character design, animation), Ichiro Itano (animation) and MOSPEADA alums Shinji Aramaki and Hideki Kakinuma (mechanical design). Megazone 23 also took the familiar “boy finds experimental robot” story to some unusual places. There were aliens, sure, but the government was just as bad and the video’s ambiguous ending wasn’t something you’d typically find in a show selling transforming toys to kids. Probably because it was actually a video movie intended to be sold to teens and younger adults.

Anyways, with all that shared staff, Megazone 23 looked to slot perfectly into the gaps between Robotech’s chapters. The original intent was to set the film before or during the “Macross Saga” portion of Robotech, which would’ve made a lot more sense given the original OVA’s contemporary setting. Problems later arose when Cannon producers complained about the film’s lack of action, resulting in recycled animation from Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross being thrown in with an entirely new ending animated with a more upbeat ending. The story was shuffled around and the film’s setting was moved to just prior to Robotech’s second chapter, “The Robotech Masters.” Of course, neither Southern Cross or that new ending really looked like the rest of Megazone 23.

“What’s that? Cannon Films and Harmony Gold really phoned it in?”

The film’s rewrites were on such a hasty schedule that the production bible had entire plot points and sentences crossed out and rewritten by hand. But Cannon was happy with the changes; so happy that in a company screening a company exec reportedly shouted “Now THAT’S a Cannon film!” as the credits rolled.

The film had test screenings in Texas that were a total disaster because even with severe edits, only a fool would show Megazone 23 to young children and it was the mid-’80s, so a cartoon movie must have been for children, right? It was also completed in 1986, which was an awful year for Cannon’s balances. The company scraped by thanks to a $75 million bailout from Warner Brothers, but a hacked together cartoon that tested poorly probably wasn’t a great release for the company to focus on.

You couldn’t buy it on home video, but you could buy a comic book based on it.

Harmony Gold and Carl Macek were reportedly so embarrassed by the film that they blocked the release of it on home video in the U.S., which really says something. Maybe they just didn’t have all the rights to release it themselves.

Still, copies escaped and circulated through underground fan circles in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If you were lucky, your copy also came with an nth-generation Carl Macek interview filmed in a poorly-lit room where he recounted the “Now that’s a CANNON film!” anecdote.

The epilogue to all of this is that decades later at a Megazone 23 fan event in Japan, Ishiguro got the chance to see the ending commissioned for Robotech the Movie for the first time. Apparently, he was entirely unaware of its existence prior to the screening and lamented not being paid for it. Wild.

To Harmony Gold, I say keep on ignoring the Voltron reboot and other great cartoons coming out these days that succeed because they don’t cater to an ever-dwindling fan base. Bring on more doughy plastic toys based on artwork you’ve spent decades trying to improve or replace, but couldn’t. Bring on your new Robotech film with computer-generated Veritech fighters that look nothing like the VF-1 because of legal issues. It certainly can’t be any worse.

Parts of this article were borrowed and inspired by an article I wrote for Topless Robot (RIP) called The 11 Biggest Mistakes In Robotech‘s History.