For the Transformers franchise, the sixth time’s the charm. After five films from director Michael Bay, which, despite making billions of dollars for Paramount, were critically derided for their cacophonous, increasingly incomprehensible action sequences and nonsensical story lines (that eventually turned to King Arthur), the brand finally has a live-action adaptation that understands the sincere charms of the toys and cartoons. It would be one thing if Bumblebee, the first franchise spinoff, was merely passable—if the action, sans Bay, didn’t look like several large pieces of scrap-metal copulating with one another. But Bumblebee isn’t just adequate: It’s one of the best blockbusters of the year.
In lieu of explosions and a ridiculous excess of machismo, Bumblebee is surprisingly small-scale—well, as small-scale as a movie with a giant transforming robot can be—and intimate. After a brief, action-heavy prologue on the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron, Bumblebee spends most of its running time focusing on the emotional bond between a teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld, particularly great when you consider she’s mostly acting opposite CGI) who’s reeling from the death of her father and the robot disguised as a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle she finds in a junkyard on her 18th birthday. This character-focused approach is nothing revelatory; in fact, it’s quite open about being from the reference-heavy Stranger Things school of storytelling. (Bumblebee is a big fan of The Breakfast Club, but he doesn’t like the Smiths or Rick Astley.) Going this route could’ve easily seemed gimmicky, as Stranger Things sometimes does. But what helps Bumblebee seem like it’s paying deference rather than cynically tapping into nostalgia is the earnest belief that the things we bond with when we grow up—whether it be a family pet, a diminutive alien, or a transforming robot—shape who we are as people. A word of warning: You may actually cry while watching a Transformers movie.
Bumblebee, in other words, is good beyond the fact that it wasn’t directed by Michael Bay. Paramount, for its part, did two things right: It took a compelling script from up-and-coming screenwriter Christina Hodson (who’s also written the Harley Quinn spinoff Birds of Prey arriving next year, and is currently at work on Batgirl) and paired it with a great director. If you didn’t know who Travis Knight was before Bumblebee, it’s time to get familiar—especially now that Marvel is rumored to be considering him for Guardians of the Galaxy 3.
Knight, the son of Nike cofounder and chairman Phil Knight, has only two directorial projects to his name—including Bumblebee, his first live-action movie—but he’s had a hand in feature films for nearly a decade. The filmmaker cut his teeth at Laika (previously Will Vinton Studios), the fledgling animation studio his father became a controlling shareholder of in 2003; Travis Knight initially served on its board of directors. Once Laika began making feature films, Knight became an animator for Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. (He’s also served as Laika’s CEO since 2015.) You’d know a Laika movie if you’ve seen it; the calling card is stunningly rendered stop-motion animation and mature storytelling that frequently considers mortality and what it means to be human. Compared with the likes of Disney and Pixar, though, they seem like the perpetual underdogs of their industry. As of this writing, Laika has released only four feature films, but they all lean into art-house sensibilities and they’re all critically acclaimed. It’s only a matter of time until one of their films nabs an Oscar, instead of settling for just nominations.
It was Knight who helmed Laika’s fourth feature film: his first, and arguably the studio’s best, Kubo and the Two Strings. Set in folkloric Japan, the 2016 film focused on Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark, Art Parkinson), a young boy imbued with magical abilities—at the beginning of the film, he can manipulate origami and tell stories through them—who is eventually pursued by the menacing Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his malevolent lackeys. Kubo is a surprisingly mature film—the narrative deals quite seriously with death and features remarkably grisly imagery for a kid’s movie—that also has shades of both Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki (influences that Knight is quick to acknowledge in interviews.)
At the time of Kubo’s release, Miyazaki had retired and Studio Ghibli was temporarily shuttered—and though it isn’t a like-for-like comparison, Laika at least seemed primed to take up the mantle, providing the same maturity and thematic approaches that the Japanese studio became internationally recognized for. (Miyazaki has since un-retired and is now particularly interested in the potential of computer animation.) Knight’s company carrying that torch—or at least coexisting with Miyazaki, now that he’s officially coming back—is a lawful good for the animation industry at large.
The key to Kubo is the delicate balance Knight achieves between paying deference to the film’s biggest influences in his aesthetic choices without letting that nostalgia overshadow his own novel strokes. Samurai, for instance, might be a Kurosawa staple, but a Samurai Beetle-Man voiced by Matthew McConaughey is, uh, certainly a new wrinkle. The same principle applies to Bumblebee. With a restrained approach to the Transformers, Knight’s film bears a much closer resemblance to the early, coming-of-age works of Amblin Entertainment, such as E.T.—Steven Spielberg has an executive producer credit—rather than a bombastic series of robot-centric explosions spread across the globe.
There are times the narrative beats of Bumblebee are a bit too familiar; one sequence in the final act seems like it could be Iron Giant copyright infringement. But on the whole, Knight’s film is a sincere reflection of its era, and for the Transformers themselves: The Hasbro toys were created in the ’80s and gained prominence with the accompanying cartoon series. Knight brings back those original Generation One designs for the robots—and unlike Bay’s Transformers, these have a vibrant color palette that also helps distinguish the characters in coherent action sequences.
It might not be an animated film, but Bumblebee evokes a familiar thrill for anyone who grew up with Transformers. To see the series finally reflected on the big screen with the same childlike wonder of playing with the toys in your bedroom is cathartic after years of Bay’s cinematic mayhem. Whether with a Transformers movie or a stop-motion film, it’s evident Knight hasn’t forgotten what it feels like to be a kid when he steps into the director’s chair. And just two projects into his directing career, he’s cemented himself as one of the most promising, can’t-miss filmmakers in Hollywood.