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The ‘Bumblebee’ Syllabus

After five Michael Bay movies, the ‘Transformers’ franchise is course correcting, and now’s the time to get reacquainted

A yellow Autobot Transformer named Bumblebee Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

“There’s a new Transformers movie” is not a novel thing to reveal; not when Paramount Pictures has been making movies about warring Autobots and Decepticons for the past 11 years. But here’s a new twist: Though a new Transformers movie is coming out, it isn’t being directed by explosion enthusiast Michael Bay, and it’s actually good.

For long-suffering Transformers fans like myself, the swell of positive hype around the ’80s-set spinoff Bumblebee is a breath of fresh air—a chance for a big-screen adaptation to course correct and finally, accurately portray the simple joy these dope-looking robots provided in many a childhood bedroom. To get reacquainted with the series ahead of Bumblebee’s release on Friday—and to shake off some of those Mark Wahlberg/King Arthur’s Court–laden cobwebs—it’s worth revisiting Transformers’ simpler beginnings and the works responsible for influencing the series. This is the Bumblebee syllabus.

Tetsujin 28-go

Many of Japan’s biggest contributions to animation and science fictions are tales revolving around giant robots, a trope which has had such an indelible mark on the country that there are several monuments honoring its most influential iterations. (What I would give to have a giant robot statue in my neighborhood.) But before there was Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Voltron, or, yes, the first Transformers series, there was Tetsujin 28-go.

Originally conceived by Japanese writer-illustrator Mitsuteru Yokoyama in the 1950s as a manga, Tetsujin 28-go followed the adventures of 10-year-old Shotaro Kaneda and his remote-controlled robot, Tetsujin 28, designed by the boy’s father as a weapon during World War II—kind of like how The Iron Giant was a reflection of Cold War hostilities, though Tetsujin 28 never saw battle. Together, Tetsujin and Kaneda solved crimes and fought other giant robots. Tetsujin 28-go was internationally recognized once it was turned into an anime of the same name in 1963, and debuted in the United States the following year under the name Gigantor, a decade before Mazinger Z, another popularized mecha series.

After Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Voltron, and Robotech in the ’80s and ’90s, giant robots became even more prevalent—and while each series provided its own unique spin and imprint on the mecha genre, it all began with Yokoyama’s creation, which was still being adapted in Japan as recently as 2005.

Transformers: Generation One

While I love the Transformers’ aesthetics and the operatic drama between the Autobots and Decepticons, it’s important to remember this all began with a simple ploy by Hasbro to sell more toys. Looking to build off the success of their G.I. Joe products, Hasbro representatives attended the Tokyo Toy Fair in 1983 and bought the rights to several toy lines from the Japanese toy company Takara. The lines they acquired employed a similar theme: transforming robots. So instead of making different U.S. imports, Hasbro collaborated with Marvel Comics to consolidate the effort into one unifying brand with its own backstory. And that’s how the tale of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the rest of the Transformers were born.

Of course, it wasn’t just enough to create the toys—Hasbro needed to broaden its newest line’s appeal beyond the shelves of department stores. That’s how The Transformers, the first animated series that debuted in 1984, was born. And though The Transformers was a transparent and cynical excuse by Hasbro to sell more toys, the show was endearingly cheesy, which is best encapsulated in its catchy theme song. It might be the most ’80s thing ever made.

The original toy line and series are retroactively referred to as Generation One (or G1), and are justifiably the source of a lot of Transformers nostalgia. The fact Bumblebee appears to be utilizing the original G1 designs for its robots has been singled out and praised by fans—finally, a Transformers movie that recognizes its roots. And while I don’t want to take that joy away from anyone, it’s important to remember: The Transformers are a product of pure capitalism.

Herbie the Love Bug

Some kids were raised on a steady diet of Mary Poppins; others caught The Love Bug. Disney’s 1968 film about an anthropomorphic Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie, The Love Bug is a quintessential underdog story about a down-on-his-luck racer (played by the late Dean Jones) beating an uber-rich driver with a staple of sports cars, like a ’60s Jay Leno. The film is a love letter to any kid who grew up obsessed with cars, which is certainly buoyed by the fact Herbie itself is enduringly adorable—it’s hard to imagine another vehicle that could assume the underdog ethos better than the VW Beetle—or that in the climactic race Herbie is able to claim first … and third place. (I’m fairly certain that is a racing first.)

Herbie eventually became the subject of its own franchise, spawning two sequels in the ’70s, another in 1980, a tepid television remake of the original film starring Bruce Campbell in 1997, and most recently, Herbie: Fully Loaded. That Herbie: Fully Loaded—the 2005 effort headlined by Lindsay Lohan—is the diminutive car’s tragic last entry; if you haven’t watched Fully Loaded, well, consider yourself lucky you weren’t subjected to what amounts to NASCAR propaganda.

Thankfully, Bumblebee seems willing to fill the Herbie nostalgia void, even if Herbie never did anything as grandiose as transforming into a giant alien robot. Unlike in the original Transformers franchise when the Autobot assumed the form of a Chevy Camaro, Bumblebee’s robo-hero turns into a beaten-up yellow Beetle, which Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson purchases from a scrapyard on her 18th birthday. When it comes to Herbie, it’s perhaps best that Disney keep the franchise stored in the IP vault—all the better to avoid another uninspiring remake. But if Bumblebee wanted to pay deference to one of Disney’s most underrated creations, I wouldn’t mind hearing the jubilant Love Bug theme one last time.

Transformers: Armada

After the original Transformers animated series ended its run in 1987, the characters were reimagined in several animated offshoots—most notably Beast Wars, which used early-’90s CGI and, as the name would suggest, animal-like transformative states for the robots. (The effects, uh, don’t hold up too well.) Of the many cartoons, however, the most compelling series was the 52-episode run of Transformers: Armada.

A reboot that eschewed all previous Transformers story lines to begin its own “Unicron trilogy,” Armada was a collaboration between Hasbro and Takara, focusing on the ensuing Autobot-Decepticon war led by Optimus Prime and Megatron. Armada added a couple of more wrinkles: New human characters allied with the Autobots on Earth and the presence of Mini-Cons, tiny Transformers that could link up with Autobots or Decepticons and, essentially, give them new weapons and a power boost. (Thanks in part to the Mini-Cons, we were blessed with cool, new transforming sequences.)

But Armada’s enduring legacy was its compelling, surprisingly complex characterization of my favorite Transformer, Starscream. Megatron’s right-hand man for the Decepticons, Starscream is frequently portrayed as a backstabbing coward. He doesn’t make it much of a secret that he hates Megatron, but he’s usually too moronic to do anything about his harboring resentment. (Michael Bay’s feelings about Starscream can be summated by the character’s unspectacular death: Shia LaBeouf fucking killed him.) In Armada, however, Starscream is a morally conflicted antihero—a character with depth, pride, and motivations beyond petty feelings about his boss. He defects from the Deceptions and joins the Autobots at one point in the series, bonding with the human characters and later, guttingly betraying them. Armada’s Starscream is also the catalyst for the Autobots and Decepticons briefly joining forces to defeat Unicron—but only after he sacrifices himself in one of the show’s only deaths.

It’s genuinely affecting, and a formative moment in my own perception of heroes, villains, and the many shades of gray they can embody in the best kinds of stories.

Michael Bay

Depending on whom you ask, Michael Bay is either an auteur of trashy cinema or just plain trash without any discernible filmmaking style outside of explosions. Either way, the director at least seems to repeatedly acknowledge that his movies are overindulgent garbage.

If you somehow aren’t apprised to Bay’s five Transformers movies—well, congratulations, for starters, and don’t feel like you need to seek out any of them—the franchise happens to embody all the director’s biggest vices. Yes, there are the explosions, but also offensive caricatures, hyper-sexualized female love interests, and male-adolescent humor. (It’s also worth mentioning that Megan Fox went through a creepy audition process for her role in the franchise, which reportedly included Bay making her wash his Ferrari while he filmed her.)

Michael Bay is what he is—at least 2013’s Pain & Gain was slightly self-aware and a surprisingly good synthesis between material and “artist.” Don’t expect him to change now. Thankfully, moving forward, it appears watching new Transformers movies will no longer mean having to also sit through one of his explosion-happy spectacles. Bumblebee is the inevitable reaction meant to offset the oversaturated (and ultimately profitable) robo-world Bay created back in 2007.

Kubo and the Two Strings

In Bay’s stead, the filmmaker taking the reins and directing the first non-Bay Transformers movie is Travis Knight. Knight is best known for his work with the stop-motion animation studio Laika—he was an animator and producer for ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, and as of 2015, is the company’s president and CEO. But Knight didn’t direct for Laika until 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, which many consider to be the studio’s best film.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a stunningly imagined tale set in a mythical version of Japan. It deals, quite seriously, with death and trauma—the titular character’s mother is left in a paralyzed state after rescuing her son from the clutches of the formidable Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). Rooney Mara voices the Sinister Sisters, subservients of the Moon King, who are absolutely terrifying.

It’s a kids’ movie that doesn’t sugarcoat its dense plotting and occasionally frightening imagery. The reward, for kids and adults alike, is a compelling hero’s journey with heartfelt stakes. It’s no wonder Kubo and the Two Strings—and the broader successes of Knight’s work at Laika—has been favorably compared to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. If Knight can imbue Bumblebee with the same stunning aesthetics, emotional maturity, and sense of wonder, the Transformers franchise might—finally—turn the corner and become something great.