OPINION: How Bumblebee Could Save The Transformers Franchise
In 2007, following the emergence of the now-staple wave of tent-pole adaptation movies, Hasbro and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks unleashed something of a ‘foolproof’ franchise. The demand for larger-than-life popcorn flicks was at an all-time high, and truly, what better way to go than giant robots? With Michael Bay added to the mix as director, they had themselves a well-oiled money making machine, complete with sky high merchandising benefits and box-office receipts to be envious of.
The first Transformers movie was a smash hit, as expected. At the very least, everyone was able to attest to a teenage boy’s affinity towards giant robots and explosions. The movie, in and of itself, was actually decent, even from a critical point of view. It was what anyone would expect of something based off of a popular toy-line. But then, in true Hollywood fashion, a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon came into being. Sequels began getting churned out with increased noise and plot convolution; each one making just as much, if not more than the last but suffering ever-surging panning and evisceration by critics. The descent into vapid and soulless cash-grabbing from the studio became more and more evident.
After the fifth entry, Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017, it was safe to admit that the “beloved” franchise had hit a wall; everyone, critics and audiences alike, fed up with warring robots akin to clanging metal pans. And it showed. With 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and a meta-score of 27 on Metacritic, the film clocked in as not only the lowest rated but the least grossing of the entire franchise ($605 million worldwide over a budget of $260 million). It had become clear that people will not continue to endure movies devoid of real substance and the “switch you brain off and just watch it” gimmick would work no longer.
With surfacing news of yet another Transformers film on the way, one would not be blamed for rolling their eyes severely. But then, in the midst of the bad will seeming to hang over the franchise like a cloud, this new film, Bumblebee, which is to be a prequel focusing on the fan-favorite Bumblebee could just very well be the one to turn things around and revitalize the entire franchise.
And I would like to highlight a few reasons why I think so.
1.) The Director (Travis Knight)
Bumblebee is to be helmed by Travis Knight. A little searching and one should find that he is an animator, film producer, and film director. He is also one of the forces behind LAIKA, the stop motion giant which has put out some of the best animated movies of the last decade. He directed 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings which received uproarious acclaim from critics and was adored by audiences; notably nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects.
As a director, he has shown quite a strong hand piecing together a dark, complex, and meditative but also heartwarming and humorous narrative as seen in Kubo. He could just be what the Transformers franchise needs to reconnect and regain audience interest as opposed to the empty sophomoric storytelling of the past films.
2.) Hailee Steinfeld
When I found out the Academy Award nominee had been cast as the lead star of the movie, I immediately perked up. Following her breakout turn in True Grit (2010), the actress has continued to rise, appearing in a slew of noteworthy projects which have done more and more to showcase her many skills; be it her charmingly relatable and lauded (Golden Globe-nominated) role in The Edge of Seventeen (2016) to her fun and serviceable turn in the Pitch Perfect films.
If there is anything this franchise needs to succeed going forward or at least, at the very moment, it is a fresh, competent and talented new face. Steinfeld fits the bill.
3.) Concept and Setting
What is known so far concerning the direction this film is taking is that it plans to be a simple origin story for Bumblebee. It is to be set in 1987, 12 years before the first film; documenting the happenings of the titular Transformer taking refugee in a small beach town junkyard and meeting a teenage girl who takes him in, their struggles against evil forces that try to hunt them and the realization that there are other Transformers on Earth.
A transparent and scaled back synopsis like that does favors to the movie and franchise as a whole. The previous films were known for being convoluted regardless of their simplistic ideas and surface-level plotting, and so this fresh, easy-to-follow concept in the same universe seems like a welcome change of pace.
One thing that has plagued the past few films is the nearly complete absence of a core; nothing to cause one to be affected by the happenings on-screen and just the complete lack of a reason to care. The culprit of this probably being the thinly written characters, half-assed motivations and the tepid plots. If you’ve seen the trailers for Bumblebee, you would see that that heart seems to be returning. The film essentially looks to be a story about a girl and her buddy, who just happens to be a giant robot.
Films that have been based around and explored the close bond between a human and some otherworldly companion like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant excel on that concept and Bumblebee seems to be looking to emulate that. One thing is sure, if Bumblebee is anything like those films, it’ll be a winner.
5.) The Look/Designs
Another thing that can be spotted from the trailers is that the Transformers are going back to their original G1 designs. Bumblebee indeed is a Volkswagen Beetle again. The entire lineup of Autobots and Decepticons, both known and unrevealed genuinely resemble their ‘80s toy counterparts.
The Gen 1 designs were boxy and clunky but had this endearing quality to them. What better way to bank on the nostalgia and goodwill of the past than by using designs mirroring that of back in the day which kids from then (who are adults now) will immediately recognize? It also helps that the film itself is set in the ‘80s.
6.) Release Window
All the Transformers films leading to this have been released in the summer. With a December release, Bumblebee seeks to take full advantage of the holiday season. Even though it opens amidst strong competition like Aquaman and Into The Spider-verse, it should still be able to act as a counterpoint and refuge for audiences who are willing to opt out and take a break from the superhero frenzy. An unassuming coming-of-age story about a girl and her kind-hearted, lovable robot companion doubling as an epic action adventure seems like the perfect escapism.
With all these ingredients and some other favorable contingents falling in place, I should think the Transformers franchise would be headed towards a rejuvenation that rings for years to come, affecting even future installments, if any.
Bumblebee opens 21st December in the United States.