So long, Optimus Prime: Transformers spin-off wins over the planet

Travis Knight’s Bumblebee – with a female lead – has confounded franchise expectations with glowing reviews

Bumblebee: Hailee Steinfeld, as Charlie, with Bumblebee

Bumblebee: Hailee Steinfeld, as Charlie, with Bumblebee

 

You might need to sit down. Bid adieu to Bayhem. There’s a new critically-adored Transformers film. At the time of writing, Travis Knight’s Bumblebee spin-off has confounded franchise expectations with a 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has muscled its way on to The Irish Times Top 50 Films of 2018 list, and earned global, glowing notices: “The best Transformers movie by far,” Liz Shannon Miller rightly records at IndieWire; “…enough wit, playfulness and charm to develop a voice of its own, which is no small thing in the context of a flashy, lunkheaded studio franchise,” writes Justin Chang at the Los Angeles Times; “Bumblebee is basically the movie that fans of the 1980s animated series wanted all along,” notes Peter Debruge at Variety.

We can vouch for that last sentiment; so can Travis Knight. At 45, he’s just the right age to have read the comics, to have folded a Peterbilt truck into Optimus Prime, and to know that Bumblebee is the best Transformer.

“When I came on board this I started to analyse it,” says Knight. “Why do people like Bumblebee so much? I looked back at every iteration of that character in cartoons, in comic books, and in Michael [Bay]’s films. And Bumblebee is the one Transformer with the greatest affinity for humanity. It’s never really explained why that is. So this film was an opportunity to explore that question. And the answer is the relationship that he has with this girl.”

The girl in question is budding mechanic Charlie Watson (brilliantly essayed by Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager who is still struggling to come to terms with the death of her father when she happens upon a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. The car is, in fact, fleeing intergalactic freedom fighter B-127, sent to Earth to prepare the planet as a new base for his oppressed Autobot cadres. Charlie and Bumblebee, as she nicknames him, become friends fast. But an unholy alliance of US military interests (exemplified by John Cena) and marauding Decepticons are determined to hunt the titular appliance down.

Set in 1987, Knight’s film not only makes terrific use of period details – The Breakfast Club on VHS, the Smiths on cassette – it feels like a film that was made sometime between Steven Spielberg’s ET and John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Spielberg has been a producer on the Transformers films since 2007, but this is the first project where one senses his spirit. The happy similarities between high Spielberg films and Bumblebee did not happen by accident.

“It made perfect sense to me that if we were going to tell an origins story about when the Transformers were born that we would set it in the era when the Transformers were born,” says Knight. “And of course being from that era ’80s music and ’80s movies were important to me. I didn’t want those to just be a veneer. I wanted the film to tonally feel like it came from that era. The film that inspired me to become a filmmaker to begin with was ET. I was eight years old in a movie theatre with my mom and it was the first movie that moved me to tears. As a kid, I was sophisticated to know that films were artifice, but I was profoundly moved; it felt like like someone had seen inside me.”

Female lead

Bumblebee’s tonal differences from the Michael Bay films are amplified by having a female in the lead role. This is, after all, the same franchise that gave the world a close-up of Meagan Fox’s thigh-gap, a close-up of Nicola Peltza, a close-up of Rosie Huntington’s thigh-gap, and so on. Knight, an animator and founder at the stop-motion animation studio Laika, has form in this regard.

“I think back to the very first film that I made,” he says. “I started my company about 15 years ago and [the] first film that we tried to get off the ground was Coraline. It was based on this beautiful book written by Neil Gaiman. And at the centre of it was this normal girl. Nothing extraordinary about her. I didn’t think that was in anyway remarkable. I just wanted to tell this great story with this girl at the centre of it. And we go down to Hollywood and met with every distributor there was and every major studio and every independent of note. And I was shocked by some of the things I heard back. They wouldn’t support the movie because there was a female at the centre of it. And apparently you can’t do that in an animated film because boys won’t go to see and and girls won’t go to see it unless she is a princess or a fairy. I was heartened when we released the film and people responded as positively as they did. And disheartened that 15 years later we’re still having those conversations. And I’ve had a lot of those conversations about Bumblebee.”

Bumblebee: The best of the Transformers?
Bumblebee: The best of the Transformers?

He’s full of praise for his 21-year-old Oscar-nominated star, Hailee Steinfeld, who has been on a roll (The Edge of Seventeen, Pitch Perfect 2 and 3) since her breakthrough turn in Joel and Ethan Coens’ True Grit: “There are very few people can carry a big franchise film. Fewer still could create such an incredible emotional performance with nothing there. You forget there was nothing in the frame, that she never actually shared a scene with Bumblebee.”

Travis Andrew Knight was born in Oregon into a family of high-achievers. The grandson of lawyer turned newspaper publisher Bill Knight and the son of Phil Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, Travis dabbled in music before embracing the business of doodling and dolls at Laika.

“I can say for certain but I don’t think it was part of my father’s grand design,” smiles Knight. “That said, the Knight boys do have a long history of disappointing their fathers. My dad’s dad was the publisher of Oregon’s second largest newspaper and when his son told him that he wanted to be a cobbler, effectively, it broke his heart. He was devastated. Fortunately, my grandfather lived long enough that he saw my father have some measure of success. But I did think back to that exchange when I told my dad that I wanted to play with dolls for a living.”

Pop vulture

I can’t help but note that, as the son of Nike’s Phil Knight, technically he didn’t have to play with dolls for a living. He might have just partied everyday, right?

“Oh, what might have been,” he laughs. “That’s not the way I was raised. My father always worked hard. There’s a nobility in hard work. When I think about the most talented artists or sports stars I’ve ever met, they are the people who work the hardest. Raw talent can only get you so far. If you’re given a gift, it’s an offence to not work hard to improve it. My dad told me early on find the thing that you love, the thing that you were put on your Earth to do. Don’t seek a job; seek a calling. It makes the hardships easier to endure, and it turns the failures into fuel.”

Travis Knight: “The film that inspired me to become a filmmaker to begin with was ET.”
Travis Knight: “The film that inspired me to become a filmmaker to begin with was ET.”

On Knight’s watch, Laika has refined family entertainment with the beloved stop-motion feature films Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings.

“What drove me to start Laika in the first place was seeing the kinds of things my children were exposed to when they were very young,” he recalls. “Looking through the prism of being a dad and seeing the kind of films that were being geared toward kids and families, it was appalling. The entertainment geared towards the most impressionable among us was just pop vulture and confection when we should be telling stories that would inspire them.”

In this spirit, it’s not too surprising that Knight has managed to correct course with the formerly unlovely Transformers sequence. An articulate, unassuming, and impressive chap, he not only makes terrific movies, he can list every hotspot in Portlaoise; Maryse, his Irish girlfriend of some years comes from there so he has a cheat sheet.

“My very first experience in a traditional Irish pub was pretty awesome because there’s nothing like that in America,” he says. “I’ve been to Irish pubs in America and they’re bullshit. To me, a proper trad session was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. For my lady, it’s not a big deal but for me it was incredible.”

Bumblebee opens December 21st with previews from December 15th

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