LAS VEGAS — If this journalist could get a dollar for every time a director said they wanted to make a movie that harkened back to the Amblin movies of the ’80s I’d have a nice chunk of change to invest in bitcoin (or maybe enough to cover Chipotle for a month). It’s a talking point that’s so common it’s hard to avoid snickering when a filmmaker says it. So, there was some trepidation at CinemaCon on Wednesday with Travis Knight said that was his goal with the first real “Transformers” spin-off, a Bumblebee solo flick appropriately titled, “Bumblebee.” Based on the footage shown, however, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker might have just pulled it off.
The “Kubo and the Two Strings” director and Laika CEO is making his live-action debut with “Bumblebee,” but he’s got a lot of advantages going his way. This solo feature is set in 1987 as a prequel of sorts and is unburdened by the world-building (and world-destroying) silliness of the last five “Transformers” films. We’re not saying there will be flashbacks to Optimus Prime or the Autobots homeworld or reference to whatever’s hidden on the moon, etc. but from the extended sequence we saw this film is thankfully much more self-contained and, excuse the cliche, had much more “heart” (more on that later).
Moreover, it has one credited screenwriter, Black List favorite Christina Hodson. The fact that any “Transformers” movie isn’t written by at least three “credited” writers, let alone — gasp — a woman, is some sort of miracle. And did we mention the hero of this film is a heroine? Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, an 18-year-old looking to find her way in the world, which is a more than welcome change from the mumblings of Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg. But let’s get to that footage, shall we?
The sequence starts with Charlie forcing herself to get up out of bed after her annoyingly loud alarm clock goes off. She walks into the kitchen, brushes her teeth in the sink and swigs some mouthwash. When she walks into the garage we see an old, yellow Volkswagon Beetle. Hearing a piece of it fall on the ground she lies on a “creeper” and rolls under the car. She uses her flashlight to check around and suddenly sees a pair of eyes and a mouth (maybe?) are staring at her. The eyes light up and Bumblebee, afraid of this human, transforms into his robot self.
Charlie is initially alarmed but soon begins to realize Bumblebee is more scared of her than she is of him. He doesn’t seem to know where he is and while he can understand what she is saying, he can’t communicate back to her. This is where Knight’s skills as a stop-motion animator come into play (he worked on “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls” in this capacity). He conveys Bumblebee’s emotions with a patience that the CG animators who worked on the previous “Transformers” films were rarely given the time to consider.
Of course, we know Bumblebee is Bumblebee, but with a robot that can’t necessarily communicate clearly Charlie certainly doesn’t. So, recognizing his other form and yellow paint job she bestows the Bumblebee moniker on him much to his delight (although Bumblebee could be a she, right?).
The stillness and quiet Knight is willing to play with for so long in this scene are simply alien to any of Michael Bay’s instincts in the previous movies. To say this sequence suggested this would be the “best” “Transformers” movie ever is an understatement. That being said, the montage that followed did show other robots in the mix (whether Autobot or Decepticon are unclear). Moreover, John Cena has a major role as an officer of Sector 7 (whatever that is) and judging by the scenes with military vehicles and explosions he’s not looking to make nice with the mechanical alien creature. And yet, even the shots of those scenes seemed a welcome change from Bay’s often beautiful, but soulless imagery.
Will “Bumblebee” be one of your favorite movies of the year? That’s yet to be determined, but based on what Knight, Steinfeld and Paramount showed off at CinemaCon it’s definitely not what you’re expecting.
“Bumblebee” opens nationwide on Dec. 12.
Look for more coverage from CinemaCon this week on The Playlist.