'Bumblebee' and When an Animation Director Jumps to Live Action

Travis Knight follows in the footsteps of Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton in making the shift, which is not always a smooth one.
Paramount Pictures

Amid the bounty of new movies at the multiplex this holiday season, you could also see yet another film in the never-ending Transformers franchise. Bumblebee is a prequel to the bombastic Hasbro series, focusing squarely on the eponymous yellow Autobot as he first arrives on Earth to protect it from the threat of the nefarious Decepticons. What makes Bumblebee most notable, though, is the man behind the camera: director Travis Knight. Knight is making the same leap that a handful of others have in recent memory, from directing animated films to live-action ones. Though some directors have struggled with the shift, Knight's work on Bumblebee suggests that he is perfectly adept in either medium.

Your mileage may vary, but it's not exactly the highest compliment to suggest that Bumblebee is easily the best film in the Transformers franchise. The new movie follows five films, all directed by Michael Bay, that run the gamut from obnoxious to oppressively incoherent. Though the basic premise of each of those previous films — there are good robots trying to save Earth from bad robots, and sometimes humans either help the good robots or work with the bad robots — is similar, those films all boasted action sequences that were both loud and incomprehensible, humor that was frequently sexist and racist, and hammy performances. Simply by telling a straightforward, mostly consistent and inoffensive story, as well as featuring action that's neither remarkable nor impossible to follow, Bumblebee wins the day.

Where the film shines is in the key relationship between Bumblebee (initially voiced by Dylan O'Brien) and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage human whom he befriends upon his arrival on Earth. Bumblebee has been tasked with creating a safe haven on our planet for his fellow Autobots, after an action-packed prologue on the planet Cybertron, where the Autobots are driven away by the vicious Decepticons. When Bumblebee first lands in Northern California, he's beset upon both by the U.S. military and a rogue Decepticon. That battle leaves Bumblebee crippled (having lost his voice programming) and mentally damaged. When Charlie discovers him, all she sees is a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle that eventually transforms into the robotic hero. Soon the two form a tight emotional bond even as they have to fend off the military and more Decepticons, who want to know the location of Autobot leader Optimus Prime.

There are some ways in which Bumblebee feels like a revival of the main storyline of the first Transformers — in that film, too, an awkward teenage discovers Bumblebee as a used car and gets into an action-packed adventure against the Decepticons. But the true touchstone for Bumblebee is another film, one directed by this film's executive producer, Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Though this is more violent than E.T. (not bloody, per se, but there are no big explosions or fight scenes in the 1982 classic like there are here), the core friendship between a damaged kid struggling to persevere after the loss of a father, and an alien outsider who's lost and alone without its own family is the same. It's to the credit of both Steinfeld and Knight that Bumblebee still works in spite of being such a direct homage.

Over the last decade, a couple of other, more well-known and celebrated directors made the leap from animation to live action. After directing Pixar classics like Ratatouille (and the cult 1999 animated film The Iron Giant, which also serves as an inspiration for Bumblebee), Brad Bird directed two live-action films, the superlative action film Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Disney's Tomorrowland. His fellow Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton made the same shift in 2012 with Disney's adaptation of John Carter, which has a smaller cult fanbase but didn't make a splash at the box office. Knight, at least, aligned himself with a franchise, as Bird did with Ghost Protocol. So Bumblebee doesn't feel as daring or searing as Knight's previous film, the excellent stop-motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings. It's also not remotely as ambitious as either Tomorrowland or John Carter. The flip side is that both of those films were daring without being entertaining, whereas Bumblebee works within the specific aesthetic it's aiming to depict.

For the first two acts, thankfully, that aesthetic is less "robots fighting each other forever and ever" and more of a love letter to the mid-1980s. After the death of her father, Charlie has gotten even more into rebuilding an old car in her garage and listening to music from bands like The Smiths. Her musical affinities inspire Bumblebee to re-create his ability to speak through a car radio, just as her love of some '80s movies, such as John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, inspires him to pick up some human actions. (One of the famous moments in Hughes' 1985 film in which Judd Nelson's rebel raises his fist to the sky in triumph, is fuel for a solid joke near the end of the film.) Though Knight tends to lean on a heaping helping of needle drops — Duran Duran, Steve Winwood, Bon Jovi — the propensity of '80s music along with Steinfeld's committed and heartfelt performance helps flesh out an overly familiar story.

Bumblebee eventually transforms itself into, well, a Transformers film, as Bumblebee has to battle a couple Decepticons in the climax. Knight's ability to stage action sequences is both less remarkable than that of someone like Brad Bird but also far more successful than that of Michael Bay. You go to one of these movies in part because you expect robot-on-robot action. While Bumblebee doesn't technically disappoint on that front, the action is far from the most interesting or charming element of the film. It's perfunctory, which is both an improvement on the overall franchise and a bit of a letdown.

Still, if Travis Knight wants to continue making live-action films, Bumblebee suggests that he's got a future doing so. But maybe in a different genre.