Michael Bay’s name shows up a lot in the reviews for Bumblebee, which is remarkable considering he’s not the film’s director. That honor went to Travis Knight, who previously made the Oscar-nominated animated film Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s funny that this fact is almost beside the point for reviewers. As far as most people are concerned, the reason why Bumblebee is good isn’t because Knight took the reins — it’s because Bay didn’t.
Typical was the L.A. Times’ Justin Chang, who notes, “[F]ew directors have pushed the boundaries of what is bearable like Michael Bay, a visually incontinent action stylist who attacks his big-screen canvases like a Jackson Pollock of pulverized metal. Mercifully, Bay’s wrecking-ball aesthetics are little in evidence in Bumblebee, which, compared with its bigger, noisier brethren, turns out to be a mercifully short, smooth ride.” Bumblebee’s reviews at IndieWire and Variety spent their first paragraph eviscerating Bay’s terrible Transformers films before eventually noting that Knight is the director of this prequel, which is set in the 1980s and concerns Bumblebee’s arrival on Earth, where he befriends an independent-minded teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Critics want you to know that it’s safe to finally enjoy a Transformers movie — ding dong, the Bay is dead.
Of course, Bay’s not fully removed from Bumblebee; he serves as one of the film’s producers. But it’s hard to think of a franchise that’s been as commercially successful as Transformers that was, at the same time, so loathed. Bay made five of those movies — the last was 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight — and they’re awful precisely because of the loud, chaotic, bro-tastic aesthetic that he brought to them. We hold him directly responsible for their terribleness. Even with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the only comparable long-running abomination, there was never one filmmaker you could blame for how bad they are. (In that case, it’s more due to Johnny Depp’s descent into shtick — although, to be fair, his performance in the first installment was fun.) But with Transformers, we felt like we were being held captive by a cinematic dictator. If audiences could be freed of Bay, then peace and joy would flourish in the land.
That sigh of relief is evident in Bumblebee’s reviews, and I imagine it might be shared by audiences. Sure, Bay’s movies were box-office behemoths — worldwide, they collectively brought in $4.4 billion — but almost no one liked them. Why, then, did we keep going to this garbage? Because we’re suckers for big robots that wreck shit. On some level, we became conditioned to expect nothing from these films, dutifully paying our money for the latest sequel in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, this one wouldn’t be so terrible. It was such a sick relationship — we’d constantly get burned, and yet, we were dumb enough to keep going back for more.
As a result, it’s easy to overrate Bumblebee, which is pretty delightful but not especially great. We’re just so thrilled that it’s a Transformers film that doesn’t sap our soul that we’re willing to declare it a masterpiece. Does Knight bring anything special to the movie? It’s hard to say: He’s spent most of his career at the animation house Laika (ParaNorman, Coraline), and this is his live-action debut. But Bumblebee does have a noticeable uptick in likable characters — although the truth is, one likeable character would be an uptick after Bay’s films. That’s how low the bar is for Bumblebee. Honestly, if you or I directed this prequel, a large majority of people might be happy simply because we aren’t Michael Bay.
All that said, Bumblebee is a far sweeter movie than the Transformers films. It’s largely about the friendship that develops between Charlie, who’s mourning the death of her dad, and Bumblebee, whose voice box has been destroyed but learns to communicate through 1980s pop songs. They’re both outcasts, and Knight develops an E.T.-and-Elliott bond (with a dash of The Iron Giant) that gives the movie an emotional core. As always, there are clattering fight scenes between Autobots and Decepticons — Earth’s fate is always hanging in the balance with these damn films — but at least we have characters to care about for once.
Admittedly, I too have been taking petty delight in the fact that the film will become an opportunity for people to rail on Bay one more time (if you couldn’t already tell). Bay is a rich, powerful Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker — his next project, 6 Underground, is top-secret but stars Ryan Reynolds — so I doubt he cares if everyone vastly prefers Bumblebee to his Transformers movies. But on some level, it must be irritating: He makes five of these things, and then some new guy comes along, directs a prequel and everybody can’t stop raving about it. At some point, Bay must wonder just how much people hate his movies — and, by extension, him.
Of course, he’s been asked about this in the past, and Bay has always tried to deflect the criticism. Back in 2014, when Transformers: Age of Extinction came out, Bay told a journalist, “They love to hate, and I don’t care; let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie! I think it’s good to get a little tension. Very good. I used to get bothered by it. But I think it’s good to get the dialogue going. It makes me think, and it keeps me on my toes, so it’s good.”
The delicious irony of Bumblebee is that, for the most part, it still feels and looks like Transformers — basically, it’s a Bay film with some heart. And it’ll do well at the box office — not a billion dollars like some Transformers installments did, but still a decent amount. So how important, really, is Bay to this franchise? His entire response to his detractors has always boiled down to, “Sure, critics hate my movies, but hey, they make money, so who cares?” Bumblebee’s commercial success would be a cheering rebuke to Bay’s dumb mindset. Yeah, we’ll see these shitty films, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t prefer that they be actually good.
Now that Knight has done just that, who needs Bay and all his noise?
Here are three other takeaways from Bumblebee.
#1. Travis Knight used to be a (bad) rapper.
Bumblebee’s director is the son of Nike head Phil Knight, which no doubt gave him the financial wherewithal to pursue his artistic aspirations. He’s been working as an animator professionally since the beginning of this century, seguing to being a producer on ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls before getting his chance to direct Kubo and the Two Strings.
But before all that, he rapped.
Travis Knight recorded under the name Chilly Tee, releasing an album in 1993, Get Off Mine, produced by Hank Shocklee, one of the sonic architects behind Public Enemy. Knight’s music career really never took off, in part because he seemed like a pretty lame white-boy rapper with a rich father. As a publicist told Vibe at the time, “It’s not his fault about his background. Unfortunately, this kid is gonna get flack just for who he is.” (Unconvincingly, in the same piece, Mr. Tee said, “Not every kid from the ghetto is into rap music. Not every kid from the Midwest is into Garth Brooks. You can’t have a blanket statement that says you’ve gotta do this to be credible and authentic.”)
When Get Off Mine failed to blow up, Knight got help from his dad, who landed Travis a menial job at Vinton Studios, an acclaimed animation house that Phil Knight was a partner in. In three years, Travis Knight was on the board, eventually becoming CEO of the company, which would later be renamed Laika. (Will Vinton, an Oscar-winning animator who had started the company, was forced out.)
Soon, Phil’s kid was directing his own Laika project, Kubo and the Two Strings, which got an Oscar nomination. He parlayed that into the Bumblebee gig. So, yeah, things turned out all right for Travis Knight — and for all of us who never had to hear from Chilly Tee ever again.
#2. “The Touch” will never die.
Because Bumblebee is set in the 1980s, there are lots of 1980s references — including a shout-out to a specific piece of Reagan-era nostalgia, the atrocious The Transformers: The Movie, which came out in 1986 and was an animated big-screen version of the popular kids’ show. In Bumblebee, we hear a snippet of “The Touch,” a cheesy-awesome rock anthem that was featured in The Transformers: The Movie. My audience laughed appreciatively. They caught the reference.
Written and recorded by Stan Bush, “The Touch” has a fabulous history for such a dopey song. A few years ago, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman published a lengthy overview of how the song was born, and how it ended up in a movie that Bush knew nothing about. The whole piece is worth reading, but briefly: Bush was a songwriter desperately trying to land a tune on the soundtrack to Cobra, but when that didn’t work out, “The Touch” found its way into The Transformers: The Movie. (As Bush says, “We thought, What in the hell is that? An animated movie about robots? Really?”)
“The Touch” became the film’s heroic, inspirational theme — the song’s chorus proclaims “You’ve got the touch / You’ve got the power” — and while most no one has fond memories of that horrible movie, the track was endlessly amusing to a young filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson, who included it in a short he was working on about a porn star named Dirk Diggler. Years later, that short became Boogie Nights, in which a drugged-out Dirk (played by Mark Wahlberg) sings “The Touch” when he’s trying to launch a recording career. The scene’s central joke is that “The Touch” is a terrible song.
Riesman’s piece mentions that Bush tried, unsuccessfully, to get “The Touch” featured in Bay’s Transformers films, even recording different versions of the songs to get Paramount interested. But now, at long last, “The Touch” is finally in a live-action Transformers. That’s just another reason why Bumblebee is superior to Bay’s movies.
#3. Why is Optimus Prime such a dipshit?
As someone who grew up watching the Transformers cartoon series, I have lots of reasons to hate Michael Bay’s live-action reboot. Look, the show was never that great, but it’s far more likeable than Bay’s films. But the one element of his movies that especially annoyed me was how they depicted Optimus Prime. The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime is a fearless champion, a thoughtful sage, a noble dude. But in the movies — and this is true of Bumblebee, too — he is such a bore. I have become everything I once hated: I now can’t stand Optimus Prime.
From the 1980s to the present, Optimus Prime has been voiced by Peter Cullen, a Canadian voice actor who turns 78 next year. When Cullen auditioned for the role back in the early 1980s, he based his performance on his older brother, a Marine who had served in Vietnam. In a 2017 interview, Cullen explained how he settled on Prime’s voice:
I say, “I’m going to an audition.” [My brother] says, “For what?” I say, “I’m gonna be a truck.” He laughs. I say, “No, Larry. It’s a hero truck!” He says, “A hero truck? Well if you’re gonna be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be a jerk.” I’m cleaning up his words — don’t be a Hollywood such-and-such. Be strong enough to be gentle. Be understanding. Be compassionate, and be able to kick ass — in a good way. He said it in a voice that was subdued and calm. He’s 13 months older and 6 inches taller. Made of steel. He was my hero. His tone of voice was [Cullen switches his voice to a lower timbre], “Peter, if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero.” It weighed heavily on me. So I’m at the audition reading the breakdown of the character and what I have to say in the audition. I can just feel Larry’s words coming out of my mouth. So, I took his sound — my first words were [again, lowering his voice], “My name is Optimus Prime.” And all these years later, we’re talking about it.
It’s that specific quality of the Optimus Prime voice — powerful but also emotional, even vulnerable — that’s the key to the character’s enduring popularity. Prime seemed like a hero as well as a father figure. You looked up to the guy the way you would an older brother, which is why it’s perfect that Cullen based his performance on his own older brother.
The Optimus of the animated series and The Transformers: The Movie was a Jimmy Stewart-like figure. But while it was smart of Paramount to bring Cullen back to reprise his role for the Michael Bay films, this was a different, far less enjoyable Optimus. Those movies turned him into a blowhard whose chief job was to deliver expositional dialogue. This is how he’s introduced in 2007’s Transformers. God, what a dipshit:
Optimus Prime didn’t get any better in the sequels — he’s just so serious that he’s no fun. It’s actually hard to root for the guy, even though Bay’s movies would invariably end with Prime intoning some sweeping this-is-the-film’s-theme speech. But they’re all terrible, every single one of them.
Prime shows up for part of Bumblebee — Paramount probably figured it would be nuts to have a Transformers movie without him — but it’s funny (and sad) how little I enjoyed his presence in the film. The dude’s so busy saving the universe he forgot how to be charismatic.