Travis Knight has worked in animation for nearly two decades, leading to his feature directorial debut with the amazing Kubo and the Two Strings. Working in animation, and stop-motion in particular, has taught Knight how to plan everything in a scene so intricately, and how to convey emotion and storytelling through visuals, angles, and physical movement.
It's this experience and knowledge that makes Travis Knight such a smart pick to helm Bumblebee, the first spinoff to the live-action Transformers franchise, and he spoke to that point when we chatted with him at San Diego Comic-Con this summer. The other thing that makes him the perfect pick for Bumblebee is just how much of a fan of Transformers lore and of this character in particular he is, especially the G1 stuff from the '80s - as evidenced in the exciting character designs and '80s setting highlighted in the Bumblebee trailers.
It's this that has reinvigorated interest in Bumblebee, sparking hopes and theories that this movie can deliver what a lot of fans have waited years for, and potentially a new franchise in and of itself - perhaps one that can even lead into or crossover with other popular Hasbro brand adaptations (looking at you, G.I. Joe!).
We recently received an aptly themed package in the mail from Hasbro and Paramount for Bumblebee, the box itself shaped like an '80s boombox (Soundwave reference!). In it were several yellow-heavy toys, all appropriately Autobot Bumblebee related. But as the box unfolds, or transforms, the most notable part of the package was a lengthy letter written by Travis Knight. It's worth reading because he simply gets it.
Few artifacts can evoke the golden, kaleidoscopic wonderland of childhood like a beloved plaything. The mere sight of a threadbare doll or a well-worn, well-loved action figure can transport us back to a time when life was new and boundless and filled with beauty and magic and discovery beckoning at every turn. A child’s toy isn’t merely a lifeless assemblage of metal and plastic and molded polycarbonate. A child’s toy is a vessel for creativity and joy and imagination. A child’s toy is something that’s deeply loved, and that which we deeply love becomes a part of us.
That’s what the Transformers meant to me. I was nine years old when the Autobots and Decepticons thundered into my world. An ancient race of enormous sentient space robots brought their age-old conflict raging down to Earth and into my imagination. They were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. And they were awesome. I spent countless hours playing with my Optimus Prime action figure, trying and failing to conjure Peter Cullen’s fixture-rattling voice as I’d lead a noble charge of Autobots across my cluttered bedroom floor. I’d collapse and reshape Megatron’s forbidding form into a deadly Walther P38 handgun, laying waste to the traitorous Autobots and looking over my shoulder for that scheming Starscream (and occasionally pretending I was James Bond). But no Transformer captivated my interest as much as Bumblebee.
Bumblebee was a humble yellow Autobot scout who took the alt form of a VW Beetle, of all things. He wasn't flashy. He wasn't striking. By Transformers standards he was small and callow and not particularly powerful. But he was the Transformer with the greatest affinity for humanity. He was the one who was most like us. He was the one who was most like me.
At home, nestled in my room, surrounded by teetering stacks of tattered paperbacks, splashy comic books, and warped VHS tapes, I would lose myself creating Bumblebee's stories. Together we wandered through faraway lands, grappling with the evil Decepticons, running high-wire reconnaissance missions, and racing through canyons of disused cardboard boxes. For a lonely child of the '80s, Bumblebee wasn't just an overworked, scuffed up plastic toy. He was fully alive. And he was a part of me.
Thirty years later, I have the amazing opportunity to breathe life into Bumblebee once more. Only this time, I get to share our story with the world. But our story is going to be a little different.
Five films into the TRANSFORMERS series, audiences have come to expect a certain kind of cinematic experience from the franchise: expansive, muscular storytelling with jaw-dropping spectacle, high-octane action, cutting-edge visual effects, and giant rock 'em sock 'em robot battles. And explosions. Lots and lots of explosions. BUMBLEBEE represents a dramatic shift from that template. This film is an intimate, deeply personal, character-driven love story that plays out like a classic Amblin movie from the '80s. With explosions Lots and lots of explosions.
Well, maybe not that many. Because while BUMBLEBEE has plenty of white-knuckle thrills, sci-fi insanity, and pulse-quickening feats of derring-do, this film evokes and pays tribute to those indelible qualities of the Transformers of my childhood. And for me, that meant magic. Wonder. Imagination. And love.
And it all began with a child's plaything.
I hope the enclosed toys shine a light into the darkened, cobwebbed corners of your youth, evoking beloved memories of your own. And I can't wait to share some of mine with you when BUMBLEBEE races into theaters this Christmas. It's a story thirty years in the making.
The Transformers movies have generally been crushed by film critics, despite their worldwide box office successes, but Travis Knight's single movie (Kubo) has a mindblowing 97% on Rotten Tomatoes by comparison. Let's hope he and his unique take and approach with the Transformers series and his favorite character can elevate Hasbro's film offerings because we're expecting good things - that's why it's so easy to believe the rumor that Marvel Studios is looking at Knight to potentially direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. And hey, Travis digs comics too!
- Bumblebee (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018