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How BUMBLEBEE’S Travis Knight Brings Transformers Nostalgia to Michael Bay’s World

How BUMBLEBEE’S Travis Knight Brings Transformers Nostalgia to Michael Bay’s World

As an animator and director at LAIKA, Travis Knight meticulously and slowly moves tiny characters a fraction of a centimeter at a time. As the filmmaker behind Transformers, Michael Bay loves to yell, hang out with elite military dudes, and blow a bunch of things up. On paper (or pixels) they maybe couldn’t be more different, even if both are essentially playing with toys. But now Knight is the guy who gets to follow five “Bayformers” films with a Transformers movie of his own: the ’80s-set prequel Bumblebee.

Judging by the movie’s Comic-Con panel, nostalgia for the old show is being leaned into hard, as things kicked off with Stan Bush playing “The Touch” live with a recut version of the trailer layered with animation effects and the classic autobot logo. And in a featurette spotlighting Knight’s animation background, the director emphasized that he wanted to make the movie like the classic ’80s coming-of-age adventures. Unlike Bay, he grew up playing with the toys.

Describing some onscreen giant robot battles as “Two Radio Shacks re-enacting the Kama Sutra,” Knight says he wanted to make sure every robot has its own distinct silhouette and look so you can always tell which is which. And yes, fans, he actually said he absolutely loves “G1 designs” (i.e. the cartoon) and wanted to put more of that in there. “Bumblebee has to give a performance that’s as moving and authentic as Hailee Steinfeld.”

The movie is an origin story, and why Bumblebee has always has the most connection with humans. Knight relates Bumblebee’s story in this movie to adolescence. And you will see Cybertron – Knight says if he’s given the money to do that, he’s definitely going to do it, because he’s wanted to see it (inhabited) for five movies. There are “all manner of layers” for fans.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays Memo, a new kid in the neighborhood who crushes on Steinfeld’s Charlie, which draws him into the big robot adventure. He revealed that his character apparently likes Gobots…which may be interesting legally. (Hasbro owns the name, but Bandai still owns the Machine Robo characters.) Are Gobots the only robot toys in this world? Like how Stallone starred in The Terminator in Last Action Hero?

Shatter (Angela Bassett), inspired by Nightbird (Justin Theroux), and Dropkick, loosely designed after animated Megatron are Decepticons, and Triple-Changers, who become muscle cars and aircraft, because “Decepticons are robots, come on,” says Knight, knowing his fandom. The airplane Decepticon in the trailer is not Starscream, but Blitzwing. And the human villain, opposing all the robots indiscriminately…is John Cena (who entered through the crowd to Beastie Boys music and a huge pop) as Agent Burns. “A complicated man,” says Knight. Cena says it’s for “all those WWE folks who are looking to see a heel John Cena.”

The footage shown maintains the visual aesthetic of the Bay films in terms of cinematography (with more restrained editing), and revisits the first film’s secret Hoover Dam base. A battle between Bumblebee and Blitzwing up the side of a mountain is indeed fully comprehensible, and concludes with Bee getting dropped of a cliff with his memory core critically damaged. Before it utterly fails, he scans a VW bug as the last thing he sees.

Charlie discovers him with no memory, naming him Bumblebee because he makes buzzing noises. There’s some comedy with Bee accidentally trashing the house, and robot action that should satisfy Bay fans…but when a G1-styled Optimus Prime appeared in hologram form, the crowd lost their minds. Especially when Peter Cullen suddenly appeared at the Q&A mic, calling out Optimus Prime’s absence, in character. “What does an Autobot have to do to get his own movie?” he intoned.

All in all, it looks like the throwback to the ’80s iterations fans of the cartoons have always been demanding, but without tossing the action, intricate transformations and overall “look” of the Bay series that fans of those enjoy.

It would appear, in other words, to have the touch AND the power.

Image: Paramount

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