Movies · News

‘Bumblebee’ Goes Small for the Biggest Impact

The ‘Transformers’ prequel packs a serious punch by examining Bumblebee’s relatively quaint beginnings.
Bumblebee Hailee Steinfeld
By  · Published on June 18th, 2018

We all contribute to things that we don’t necessarily like. There’s a reason the Transformers films have made a good chunk of money over the past 10 or so years that Paramount has been churning them out, despite the series’ meager critical reviews and a mostly lukewarm reception from the general public.

Michael Bay’s Transformers – released back in 2007 and often touted as the best film of the franchise – basically has no substance. Movies don’t have to mean something to be good or fun or both. But with no emotional anchors to tether the unending explosions and hollow “comic relief” of the film, Transformers is easily written off. Frustratingly enough, the world then received four more similarly ludicrous movies with rotating cast members.

Travis Knight’s Bumblebee is already primed to be the film that changes it all for the Transformers Cinematic Universe, however, because it is intentionally going small and focusing on the heartfelt. The synopsis of the film isn’t groundbreaking but is refreshing in its simplicity and sincerity. Set 20 years before the events of Transformers, the film introduces a younger Bumblebee hiding out in a junkyard. Hailee Steinfeld’s kindly protagonist, Charlie, meets him soon after and they form a bond. However, a tactical team led by John Cena eventually turns up and forces the duo to go on the run. Charlie and Bumblebee’s escapades eventually lead them to discover that there are more potentially sinister Transformers out there. Soon enough, a hero is born.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura broke down the changes that make Bumblebee so special. He has been involved in the Transformers film franchise since its inception and has seen the series through highs and new lows. He discerns that fans were invariably disillusioned with the franchise after Transformers: Age of Extinction, even though filmmakers and producers “didn’t see the fatigue” at the time. Age of Extinction still grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, but it was very poorly received.

Bumblebee wasn’t necessarily a reactionary movie to the comparative underperformance of The Last Knight either, as it was first announced back in 2016. However, after The Last Knight officially became the lowest-grossing film in the Transformers series — clocking in at $605.4 million worldwide — the need for change was made even more evident.

Two things definitively make Knight’s Bumblebee far more exciting than anything Bay has churned out with the franchise over the past decade: the origin story, and its new female protagonist. Audiences are constantly funneled prequels left, right, and center these days, but the kind of prequel makes all the difference in the world. The great news about Bumblebee is that its eponymous hero will absolutely get to be vulnerable in his standalone feature, and not least of all because he’s back in his Gen One form: the Volkswagen Beetle. According to di Bonaventura:

“I’ve screened [a rough cut] three times, and there has not been a single comment from the audience that they didn’t like the fact that we made it the Beetle. The warmth of it certainly helps us, but also, the sheer freshness of it is really fun.”

Throwing the franchise back to an era it hasn’t yet explored and downsizing the film’s cast list prove beneficial too. Empire first reported in 2017 that Bumblebee would be set in the 1980s and include fewer robots. EW’s feature further explains that these decisions were made to facilitate the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee. Di Bonaventura states:

“In that sense you really get to watch Bumblebee be lovable, be kindhearted, be sweet, be tough, be a warrior, be protective. We get to see a lot of him in different guises. Years ago I worked [as a Warner Bros. executive] on ‘The Iron Giant,’ which is a younger story, and therefore different. But it has similarities to that. You really get to buy into the central relationship between the human and the robot.”

Hailee Steinfeld Bumblebee

Then there’s Charlie herself, who is bound to be a key component in the franchise’s reach of wider demographics. We have Steven Spielberg to thank for this, who apparently “had an idea that a young girl and Bumblebee would be a great combination.” For years, Transformers built its series around women who either personify the male gaze or who never get to actualize their full potential due to scripts that keep them playing second fiddle. In contrast, Bumblebee is set up to be Charlie’s coming-of-age story as much as that of the titular Autobot. In fact, she and Bumblebee first cross paths as she looks for a car to take her on an adventure of her own.

Then there’s the fact that Charlie is portrayed by Steinfeld, an Academy Award nominee who has both the talent and the extensive fan base to help rejuvenate an ailing franchise. Whether you’re someone who prefers the Serious Leading Actress in True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, or someone who follows her music post-Pitch Perfect, Steinfeld lends plenty of her own credibility to Bumblebee months before it’s even out.

Finally, are there any plans post-Bumblebee? Di Bonaventura mentions that an Optimus Prime film is a priority, although “it would be a very different kind of movie.” The leader of the Autobots would have made a logical choice for a first spin-off, except for the fact that producers found the character far too stoic. For all intents and purposes, Bumblebee is a diametric opposite, personality-wise, to Optimus Prime. Bumblebee is believably volatile, which makes his standalone story more easily accessible.

In the Transformers world, you evidently cannot go big or go home. The first Bumblebee trailer already makes it abundantly clear that the film needs a pared-down premise and fresh faces to find its feet again. The Bumblebee spot may resemble the first Transformers trailer to some extent, but even a supercut version of Bay’s film is way duller in its moodiness. Meanwhile, Bumblebee is brimming with hope for a renewed future for the Autobots, and maybe the Transformers franchise will get a proper makeover.

Related Topics: ,

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)