When it was announced that Paramount had plans to release lots of Transformers spin-off movies, the world — myself included — let out a giant sigh. Despite being one of the most profitable franchises of all time, the series has left a lot to be desired thus far. With each sequel, director Michael Bay turned up the bombast and and forgot about the basics — like good stories and compelling characters. But he could only keep it up for so long before fatigue set in. When The Last Night underperformed at the box office, the warning signs were apparent. People were tired of the same old, same old Bayhem. For this franchise to succeed going forward, a new approach was needed.
Paramount’s first wise move was to recruit Travis Knight to helm the Bumblebee solo adventure. The director of the wonderful Kubo and the Two Strings taking the reins suggested that this robotic franchise would find a heart after all. Color us curious. Reasons to be optimistic grew when Hailee Steinfeld, a good actress, signed on to star. Steinfeld has a good track record when it comes to picking roles, so maybe this wouldn’t be a step down for the Oscar-nominee after all. Adding John Cena to the cast was the cherry on the cake, especially after his impressive turn in Trainwreck. He’s only gotten better since then as well.
Over the past few months, Knight and his cast and crew have been telling us all the right things. While they said that Bumblebee will retain the grand-scale action Bay’s movies are synonymous with, they also stressed that this adventure will be character-driven and focused on telling a heartfelt story. Comparisons to The Iron Giant only sweetened the prospect. For the first time ever, all the signs were pointing towards a potentially good live-action Transformers movie.
Of course, let’s not forget that this is still a Transformers movie, and Paramount’s flagship franchise. There’s a lot riding on this movie and studio’s don’t tend to take big gambles on projects of this magnitude. Well, the full trailer has arrived now, and it’s a step in the right direction.
There’s certainly plenty of robot action on display here, but the film looks like it revolves around Charlie (Steinfeld) and her friendship with the titular Autobot. Set in 1987, the film follows the pair’s unlikely heroes journey as they embark on a mission to save Planet Earth from Decepticon destruction. There are also cameos from Optimus Prime, Soundwave, Barricade, and Blitzwing. Cena is the token military commander all of these movies seem to include.
The throwback robot designs should satisfy fans of the Generation One iterations of the Autobots and Decepticons. That’s the era Knight is intent on recapturing with his opus. He’s a legitimate fan who grew up with the toys, cartoons, and comic books, so this is a dream come true for the director’s inner child. He understands that this is a franchise that used to have some heart. There’s a reason why the television series and original movie are still so beloved after all these years: they told good stories, gave us compelling characters, and boasted strong emotional gravitas. Even as an adult, Optimus Prime’s death in the 1986 flick is a tearjerker.
First and foremost, Bumblebee is a movie for kids. That’s the target audience since youngsters are likely to make their parents buy the toys and any other merchandise that coincides with this release. Paramount plans to make more movies about Hasbro figures and unleash a multi-platform merchandising campaign. But kids are more likely to buy merchandise if they’re emotionally attached to the characters, like fans of original Hasbro toys were because the cartoons were so awesome. Give these children wondrous onscreen adventures featuring strong protagonists and villains that inspire their imaginations to soar as they bash action figures together.
Saturday morning cartoons might be a thing of the past, but many of them employed good storytellers who put some actual effort into creating quality work. That’s the spirit Bay’s movies lost, but one that Bumblebee and subsequent Hasbro movies should aim to evoke. Throw in some Spielbergian sap and some high stakes scenarios and maybe some of that old magic can be captured once again. Knight’s a filmmaker who’s drawn towards stories like this. Don’t be surprised when he injects some soul back into these machines.