For a little over a decade, Michael Bay built a billion-dollar empire on treating his audience like children. In his eyes, all the people want to see are boobs, explosions, and jokes about boobs and explosions. He has become, for many, a symbol for just how little Hollywood actually thinks of its customers, capable only of money-grubbing cynicism.
Enter Travis Knight, president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, director of the phenomenal Kubo And The Two Strings, and the human that this series has been needing for a very long time now. If there’s one thing Knight knows, it’s how to make inanimate objects feel like they are just as full of life as any flesh-and-blood human. And through Bumblebee and his interactions with the perpetually-on-the-edge-of-seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, we get a very tender and emotional display of that in action. Through sheer body language and sampled speech, Bumblebee becomes something worth caring about, worth crying with, and worth sharing victories with.
He’s also someone worth seeing in a fire fight, and this is another result of Knight’s involvement. Stop-motion animation is a gruelling and time-consuming process, one that requires a metric tonne of patience to see through. The kind of patience that, unlike Bay, allows Knight to give the audience time to breathe between action scenes so it doesn’t just blur together into a sprawling behemoth of incoherency. It maintains the CGI fidelity of the other films, one of the few consistent high points for the series, and applies it to fight scenes that may lack a certain bombastic punch but balances that out with plenty of emotional hutzpah. They work because we care about who’s involved.
But more than anything else, what Knight and writer Christina Hodson do that warrants the most praise is that they actually have an idea of who their audience is. The film is soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, showing a lot of reverence for the era that gave birth to Transformers and so many other toy-licensed cartoons, referencing everything from ALF to The Breakfast Club to make for cheesy but undeniably fun moments. These work nicely to counteract how sombre this film can get, with the relationship between Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s Charlie a surrogate for grief and adolescent woes and all those other things that most would wish to forget.
Much like with Kubo, Knight trusts that his audience, young and old, can accept the darker aspects of life and death, up to and including how it is perfectly fine to not feel fine. Then again, even without that context, being handed a book titled ‘Smile For A Change’ will never not be patronising, as happens to Charlie early on.
For the first time in over 10 years, we have a Transformers movie worth watching; a fun, well-acted, exciting and even emotional piece of popcorn action.