What 'Bumblebee' Can Teach Other Prequels
Bumblebee was just one of three big-budget prequels in 2018, but unlike others in that category, it is easy to forget about its place in the franchise's larger history.
There are a number of signs that Bumblebee takes place before the first five Transformers films, from its 1980s setting to the usually silent Bumblebee speaking. But the film, directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and written by Christina Hodson (the upcoming Birds of Prey), is so concerned with its own organic story that it is able to feel whole.
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Last year was a rather wide-ranging case study in prequels. The other two major ones from 2018, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, fell short of where Bumblebee landed as a stand-alone film. Both Solo and The Crimes of Grindelwald were too self-aware that they function as prequels to make them work as stand-alone films.
Whether or not Solo had to address many of the famous points of backstory is a bit beside the point. What's more important is how the film goes about those nods. For example, the revelation of how Han Solo got his name, from a border guard of the empire, is constructed in a manner that winked at the significance of the moment to the audience. It didn't work to service the film itself.
Where Solo feels individual was its setting. While plenty of prequels dwell in worlds that feel visually the same as the films that take place before, Solo enters worlds that have not been seen in the franchise, almost immediately with Solo's underground gang of criminals. And the film ends by focusing on a group of rebels beyond the icons already so well-known.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald hinges heavily on self-awareness — the entire film is about a possible LeStrange family connection before the ending, which shifted to a Dumbledore family connection. Granted, the film does labor to distinguish itself from the rest of the franchise by focusing on wizarding bureaucracy and further expansion on the world of creatures.
Bumblebee, however, expands its world by shrinking its story. The film begins with an action sequence on Cybertron and shows the Autobots fighting the Decepticons in a battle featuring Optimus Prime. But Prime is not highlighted so overtly like Han Solo's name. He's simply there, playing a role like every other character in the scene rather than standing out. The sequence is short, and the film then follows Bumblebee to Earth. And after the introduction of the U.S. military as antagonists and the damaging of Bumblebee's voice systems, the film quickly turns to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld).
Bumblebee is essentially an '80s-style coming-of-age film (for both Charlie and Bumblebee), which allows it to stake its own place with its visual language rather than fall in line with the action mold of the previous five Michael Bay-directed films. And in that, the film's world feels contained and distinct. While the Decepticons come looking for Bumblebee, his story hinges on his relationship with Charlie, first and foremost.
Much like The Iron Giant or even Paddington, the central relationship of a human and a strange creature in a strange land works because the two are wholly fleshed-out characters with personal dilemmas that they help each other through. While the film does explain how Bumblebee speaks through the radio, it does so organically as part of that arc with Charlie.
Bumblebee helps Charlie heal from tragedy, and Charlie helps Bumblebee find his voice in a frightening world that wants him destroyed. There's no relegating either character to being a cog in the action machine or a cog to simply get Bumblebee to where audiences know him from other films. While neither trump the other, the film belongs to Charlie more than it does to Bumblebee.
And while Optimus Prime pops up again, his role stems entirely from what's within the film. He's very quickly and efficiently set up as a leader at the beginning, sending Bumblebee out to Earth on a mission, and he later shows up simply as that leader to reinforce Bumblebee, not just to be there as reference. Knight treats Prime like an enigma to every character other than Bumblebee, contextualizing his short presence.
Bumblebee's moments of overt self-awareness end up enhancing the film's charm. They don't necessarily need the other films to work, such as a joke about the types of cars Bumblebee could transform into. That Bumblebee chooses a yellow bug of all cars is funny regardless of what audiences know about him down the line.
That's one of the keys to Bumblebee. Do the other five Transformers films need to exist for the film to work? The answer is, seemingly, no. Optimus Prime is a peripheral character that can step up down the line if this story were to continue. Bumblebee's distinguishing characteristics, like his voice, are thoroughly earned within this film. While Bumblebee does exist in the same universe as those other films, it could also very easily function as a reboot of the franchise.
But what's even more telling is how it simultaneously stands on its own while also expanding the franchise beyond what's already been explored. That it achieves both without sacrificing anything for either is a testament to its success as a prequel, something a bit hard to come by today.
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