Bumblebee (2018) by Travis Knight
Review by Andrew Swafford
Bumblebee is a big-hearted blockbuster that exists to sell toys, so let’s start with the cynical stuff, in which I wildly speculate about various financial interests attached to this movie.
This is the sixth installment in the Transformers franchise, which up until now has been helmed rather notoriously by Michael Bay, who littered his films with shameless product placement and self-aware pandering to his audience of teenage boys, destroying the career of Megan Fox in the process of making her a franchise pin-up girl akin to those Bay shot for his Victoria’s Secret ads. The films and Bay’s career more broadly have been reassessed by certain corners of the internet cinephile community (under the banner of “vulgar auteurism”) as being a type of cutting-edge, borderline avant-garde approach to blockbuster filmmaking, so I’ll avoid passing too much judgement on an obvious punching bag here and let you decide for yourself if Bay’s approach is the appropriate one for a franchise that, again, does indeed exist to sell toys in the first place. This is one way to make these movies.
For Bumblebee, the torch has been passed to Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika animation studios, the director of Kubo and the Two Strings, and the similarly corporately-connected son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight. But Knight doesn’t posture like a businessman; listen to just about any interview with Travis Knight on the subject of Laika, and you’re bound to hear him say some variation of the following:
“When we started Laika 10 years ago, one of the core considerations…the simplest, most unadorned statement was that we wanted to make movies that matter. We wanted to combine history and tradition with cutting-edge technology and innovation to tell interesting stories and things that had meaning and resonance...We want to dive into new worlds and explore different aspects of the human condition.” (Source: Den Of Geek)
I don’t keep too up-to-date with animation industry shop talk, but I’d wager a guess that the filmmakers over at Illumination or BlueSky aren’t dropping the phrase “human condition” too often when promoting Minions and Ferdinand. They’re also not making movies with their hands–Laika is the only American animation studio consistently using stop-motion, which is perhaps the most labor-intensive approach to the medium, with animators’ fingerprints on every frame. They’ve also sworn off sequels and, until recently, sworn off merchandising, which couldn’t be farther from the Disney model of self-cannibalism and branding-as-sequel-experience.
So Knight is a rich kid (sorry–“grown man old enough to be my father”) with a serious vision and high artistic standards. The problem is that it’s not paying off. Laika’s films have consistently kept the same modest budget of $60 million despite ramping up the production quality with each picture, but their box office revenues have dropped to about half their initial earnings:
I’d wager a second guess that Laika has been able to buoy themselves thusfar with dad’s sneaker money, but eventually the financial burden becomes too great. About half a year after the exceptionally low-grossing Kubo came out, rumors scattered across the internet that Laika was laying off animators left and right, potentially even closing its doors. This news came around the same time that Knight officially signed on to direct Bumblebee, the next installment of the franchise most synonymous with flagrant commercialism. (Also around the same time that Laika started signing merchandise deals.) Wagered guess #3: Travis Knight probably signed on to herd the Transformers cash-cow in order to keep Laika afloat for a few more years.
I’m inclined to view this as a noble goal, especially because Knight seems to be bringing Laika’s humanistic sensibility to a franchise heretofore so concerned with militaristic hardware and mechanics.
Knight’s film is primarily concerned with scale–or more specifically, scaling things down. Bay’s Transformers films range from 143 to 165 minutes; Knight’s film is shorter than Bay’s shortest by a half-hour. Bay’s films feature about 39 Autobot and 43 Decepticon characters; Knight’s film features about 5 of each. Bay’s Bumblebee transforms into a souped-up Camaro for most of the series; Knight’s transforms into a particularly dusty Volkswagon Beetle. In Bay’s films, Bumblebee and his fellow Transformers tower over people and houses like kaiju; in Knight’s film, Bee can comfortably stand inside a garage. What’s more, Bay tends to shoot his robots from the ground level, marvelling up at their monstrosity; Knight shoots the robots in the same way he’d shoot people, making them feel small and approachable. Bay’s trademark style of shooting action (sometimes referred to as “Bayhem”) typically involves disorienting camera movement and rapid-fire editing; Knight tends to play things much more safe, shooting from clear vantage points and holding takes for much longer.
He doesn’t exactly replace maximalism with minimalism, however–it would be more accurate to say he replaces maximalism with moderation. In stripping away all of Bay’s extravagance, there’s a legitimate case to be made that Knight’s film feels too anonymous, lacking any of the personal flair that made Bay an obvious (albeit maligned) auteur. But in turning down all of Bay’s overcranked dials, Knight creates room in his narrative for the one thing Bay’s movies always lacked: a sincere human story.
The story at the heart of Knight’s film (which has no direct plot connection to any of Bay’s films) isn’t a particularly novel one: an angsty 18-year old struggles to tolerate her prototypical American family that now includes a dorky stepfather, a poor replacement for her recently deceased dad. In this particular version of that familiar teen narrative framing, she fruitlessly tinkers with her late father’s broken-down car in an attempt to keep his memory alive, only to find a cute, yellow replacement that also turns out to be a robot from outer space. The end result is a “Boy and His X” story that ends up feeling a little bit like E.T. (Spielberg is a producer) and a little bit too much like The Iron Giant (there’s even some vague Cold War paranoia stuff due to Bumblebee’s 1980s setting).
So it’s all been done before, to be sure, and the thematically weighty lines are underlined a little too thuddingly, but every scene works thanks to the pure charisma and talent of young actor-turned-pop-star Hailee Steinfeld somehow manages to make companionship with her pet robot car feel sweetly believable despite the fact that she spent an estimated 90% of her shooting days acting to a tennis ball. If I may indulge in one more small act of wild speculation, I think the effectiveness of Steinfeld’s delivery may in part be a result of script rewrites by Kelly Fremon Craig, who penned such sharply humorous lines for Steinfeld’s voice in Edge of Seventeen. (I’d be okay with Craig just being Steinfeld’s personal script doctor for life?) Regardless of who deserves credit, these dialogue scenes between Steinfeld and Bumblebee are easily the most compelling moments of the movie. And if tender character-centric moments feel like the driving force for a Transformers film, that’s when you know Knight has managed to make a radical shift in the franchise’s center of gravity.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that Bumblebee really feels like two movies at once: the runtime is divided between the a teen dramedy led by Steinfeld on the one hand and a Saturday-morning-cartoon military conflict led by John Cena on the other. In his parallel plotline, Cena plays a military officer whose colleagues have been into doing business with the Decepticons who plan to kill Bumblebee. In a recent interview, Steinfeld explains that
“when you watch the film, you sort of lose yourself in each world when you’re in it; you kind of forget that you’re watching a Transformers film when you’re at home with the family, and then you’re in this Transformers world and you forget that there’s a family.”
Despite the fact that Steinfeld touts this as a strength of the movie, I can’t say I see both halves as equally strong–the domestic dramedy feels like a breath of fresh air in this franchise, while the military plot justly feels like a slightly more charming caricature of the established formula. However, Cena’s disarmingly non-toxic masculine presence does grant this half of the film some charm (I was particularly amused by his delivery of the line “They literally call themselves Decepticons...Isn’t that a red flag?”). Here, too, it’s the character that cuts through the noise.
When looking at the film’s action sequences as action sequences, the extent to which the military scenes succeed clearly owes a debt to the domestic ones, which grant a relatable reference point for the scale of destruction that the film’s titular robot can cause. There’s one scene in particular that is a great example of this involving Bumblebee stumbling around the family living room, destroying a TV, a coffee pot, a table, a couch, etc. Understanding this small-scale havoc that a character like Bumblebee can accidentally wreak makes the purposeful destruction of the film’s large-scale battle scenes all the more dynamic.
None of these choices made by Knight are particularly innovative; he’s just staying inside the lines of long-established best practices for blockbuster movies (placing an emphasis on character and story, making his action clearly comprehensible, taking advantage of dynamic range, etc.). Putting together a character-driven action-adventure film that has a greater sense of standalone coherence that your standard MCU-entry or Michael Bay film can hardly be considered a high bar to clear–it might even be called “New Competence.” And as for the niche fanbase of Bay aficionados who appreciate the thrash-metal-esque cacophony of Bay’s entries in the franchise, Knight’s Bumblebee will likely have nothing to offer them. The film will certainly not inspire the development of any new theoretical frameworks; it will probably not make your top 10 of the year (nor mine).
However, Bumblebee does succeed on a fundamental level, and I do think there’s value in its particular brand of wholesomely four-quadrant family entertainment that doesn’t really exist anymore. This is especially so when the film feels like a minor triumph of representation for a franchise that has had such a rough go at it: Bumblebee features a heroic and non-sexualized female lead, a female villain (finally, lady robots!), and a Dominican-American male love interest who comically doesn’t save the world but does get a kiss on the cheek for being supportive. If behemoth blockbusters like the Transformers films are going to continue to exist in perpetuity, they might as well be good and do good for a large number of people (not just the already-catered-to-enough teenage boys or the niche vulgar auteurists), and Bumblebee is just about the best one could hope for when it comes to bringing an exhausted/exhausting franchise “Back to Life” (to quote the song Hailee Steinfeld recorded for the film). And hey, maybe Laika can ensure their own future while we’re at it.
Now cast Hailee Steinfeld as the lead in an original musical, you cowards