In September 8, 1984 the world had changed for children everywhere with Challenge of the GoBots, …what you thought Transformers was first out of the gate? Nay my friends that didn’t happen until September 17th, but we can see now which one is remembered. Robots that were more than meets the eye filled the airwaves, and Christmas mornings that year as we met characters evocative names such as Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, Iron Hide, and Bumblebee. For the next two years these cartoons were a staple in many American households, and those around the world, as new Robots were introduced on both the Heroic Autobots and Evil Decepticons side…all to sell us the toys. In 1986 the world for these children changed again when Transformers the Movie hit theatres everywhere. An updated edgier theme song, a more traditional Japanese animation style, with new characters introduced that looked less like the cars, trucks, and military aircraft we knew and more space aged. That movie also did something no other series dared to do and killed off, KILLED off major characters from the original line. This was so traumatic at the time every child in the theatre I saw it in, myself included, was in tears as you heard the words “Prime, you can’t die…”. It was so traumatic that it also killed the prospects of G.I. Joe the movie from going to the theatre and forced a rewrite of it where they had intended to kill some of its original line of heroes and villains.
For years to come since there has almost always been a version of Transformers on the air, from Beast Wars, to Armada, to Prime, to Cyberverse; all catering to different ages and demographics with different levels of storytelling. In 2007 Michael Bay (stop hissing at his name…yes he earned it, but c’mon), provided us a “Live Action” Transformers the Movie. They solicited the fans for lines to use which gave us hope, as we heard Peter Cullen, the eternal voice of Prime, say “Autobots Transform and roll out”. That may have been the last time the audience as a near collective enjoyed the movie franchise. This was the start of a schism which has infected most of our beloved series to this day where some people don’t mind, the fan boys cry you ruined my childhod, and others wonder what the fuss is about; and even others like them. For my part, the quality degraded sharply with the second film and never recovered and was so bad I couldn’t even watch the last one. Apparently neither could audiences as The Last Knight barely scratched making half its budget back domestically with a mere 130 million dollars, against a 217 million dollar budget.
All of this was an albatross around Michael Bay’s neck to many movie goers who were just tired of the explosions, racism, impossible to understand action sequences, and raw stupidity of the plots. That, was just last year. So when we, as an audience, heard there was a Bumblebee spin off movie we were justifiably nervous, and really just asking
Money of course. Paramount likes money. The franchise, despite critical reception has been profitable. Could they turn it around though after the Bay-formers were losing more and more audience goers? They went to their writers room and found Christina Hodson, who had just worked on the mediocre film Shut In, and the absolutely forgetable Unforgettable. This is cynical me talking, as I think the execs went “Female writers are all the rage, lets get one to write a Transformers movie, how much worse can it get?” The more hopeful me says Hodson had a story pitch and they listened. I know that she was involved before the director was picked which is a really good sign. She put herself into this script and that makes me happy, she wanted to see a girl on screen in this kind of movie, she’s always wanted that and I’m glad because we need that. The movie is a lot slower than the other films and is a soft reboot of the series that I think it needed. The script actually bothers to let the moments breathe and let Bumblebee become the character we, as kids, kinda knew and loved. The studio somehow made a character piece between a Girl and her Robot and I have to tell you folks it works.
Hodsons script and emotional heart to the story is an amazing start, and I can’t wait now to see what she does with the Harley Quinn movie. Travis Knight, our director I think is the other major part that makes this work. Knight is the CEO of Laika entertainment who gave us Paranorman, Coraline, and Kubo and the Two Strings, which Travis also directed. If you have watched any of those movies, you understand that they get what characters mean, they know how to do near perfect emotional beats. His capabilities as a stop motion animator also make him ideal for directing a GIANT ROBOT movie as he can not only visualize the scene but be able to describe and communicate it to his team. Between Hodson’s story and script and Knights skills, all you need is actors to make a good movie regardless of genre.
Enter Hailee Steinfeld, who exploded into the cinematic scene as Mattie Ross in True Grit, is a singer, and is our Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. She makes her character of Charlie Watson something few of the humans in any other Transformers film before it did, likable. Charlie is in a rough spot in her life as she turns 18 and is dealing with the unexpected loss of her Dad, her family moving on, and not sure who or what she is. Steinfeld is able to bring the complexity of the character (even if it is a bit tropish) to life and does so against a 12 foot yellow robot. Between the performance of Steinfeld, and the performance given to Bumblebee by the director and animation department, they have humanized this franchise in a way I didn’t think possible at this point.
Speaking of animation department; do you remember when you could watch the fights in movies and understand what was going on? So do I. They were good times. This movie brings those times back. The fights avoid quick cuts and shaky cam instead going for more flowing animation and traditional medium or wide takes to let you appreciate what is going on. The return to the Generation 1 (original) looks for some of the characters doesn’t hurt either. There are even some other 1986 movie references hidden in some of the sequences that made me bounce when I saw them. On top of that rather than fully acting against green screen Hailee was actually able to act against a model of Bee on set so she had something to work with – novel idea. The soundtrack is a best of 80’s alternative and a few others, with one lovely easter egg for Transformers 1986 fans.
Guys, I never thought I would sat this. It is a good movie. A really good movie. It doesn’t fully divorce itself from the Bay run as much as we might wish it and there are elements such as Sector 7, the Hoover Dam, etc; but it more or less ignores the metaplot that was given to the first five films entirely. Transformers fans, especially G1, will geek out over all the nods from the classic designs to the Transformer sound effect being used through the movie. Caution flag on this though folks, a lot of the G1 stuff is in the opening but its so worth it. The rest of the movie is a much slower and better Transformers movie than we deserve, but definitely needed. The cast is small and you actually do give a damn what happens to them. This isn’t to say they disappoint on the action, when they give you the beats they are good ones and while not nearly as over the top as Bay, are just good.
Bay is an interesting director who has his own style which some may like more than others, but I have to say if this is what Travis Knight can do with a real camera and more than a voice cast, we need to get him in live action more than ever. Also – watching Optimus Prime fight on Cybertron in the opening is fantastic.
Bumblebee is a wonderful nostalgic ride that has a lot of movie baggage to overcome and truly deserves to.
Should I see it?
Honestly, yes. I want this movie to succeed so badly so we can continue to get QUALITY Transformers movies like this. So we can get other 80’s franchises with the right treatment and right care.
Would you see it again?
Maybe not in 3-D, but absolutely even at full price.
How about buying it?
4K baby. In 4K
Alright, which of the releases this month would you see and in what order now that everything is out?
- Spider-Man into the Spiderverse
- Anna and the Apocalypse – this one gets me alright?
- Bumblebee – only in spot 3 because Spider-Man is that amazing and I have a truly weird affection for Anna, or it would be in second place
- Mary Poppin’s Returns
- I would never see Mortal Engines again. why do you even ask?
My partner and I tonight really liked this movie, it is easily the best live action Transformers movie we have received and handled both the human and robotic characters well; and avoided juvenile humor along the way.
I don’t know what else to tell you, someone, somewhere may have listened and given us what we wanted. We should do them the favour and see this movie.