Transformers fans had a real special panel at Comic-Con tonight, when Paramount’s franchise spinoff Bumblebee took the stage and put on a classic Hall H spectacle. Director Travis Knight took the stage along with stars Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and John Cena, and we got an extended look at the some footage from the film, but first we got a laser show and live performance of “You Got the Touch” by Stan Bush — the full 80s experience.
Once the panel portion began, Knight was eager to talk about his vision for the film, touching on everything from character design to what he’s carrying over from his experience at the celebrated stop-motion studio LAIKA (Kubo and the Two Strings). According to Knight, one of the main benefits of his animation experience is that he’s used to bringing an entire world to life, something he found useful when it came to drawing up concepts for how his Transformers should look — and he’s definitely leaning into the G1 designs over the hyper-mechanic designs of the Michael Bay films, and because the film takes place 20 years before those films, he had a lot of leeway with the designs. Another key factor for the design process was making sure each bot had unique silhouettes and color palettes, so they were easy to distinguish during the fight scenes. Otherwise, it can look like “two Radio Shacks reenacting the Karma Sutra,” Knight said to a big laugh.
As far as the story goes, Knight emphasized that he’s looking to Spielberg’s classic coming-of-age films as an inspiration, and looking to bring LAIKA’s signature combination of dark and light elements to the world of Transformers. But don’t worry, this quiet little story is also going to take us to Cybertron. Knight explained he wanted to make “ Something more intimate and character driven,” which dives into “why people should and do love Bumblebee.” Finally, he described it as “a beautiful love story between these two characters.”
Which two characters? Why that would be Bumblebee and the teenage heroine Charlie, played by Steinfeld, a rock-n-roll loving girl Stienfield describes as “your typical misunderstood teenager who has suffered a loss.” That loss drives Charlie on a quest for freedom, to discover who she is and her place in the world, and to her, that freedom is symbolized by a car. Enter Bumblebee.
The two meet, become BFFs, and set off on an adventure that pits them against John Cena’s villainous, anti-Autobot Agent Burns. “He thinks he’s a good guy,” Cena explained. “He knows that he’s right, and that’s the reason that he does, sometimes, the naughty things that he does.” Knight added, “He’s a complicated man. You could definitely have a mustache twirling villain, but John’s character is grey.” The other interesting element is that Burns actually is kind of right. “He thinks he’s right and from some perspectives he’s absolutely right,” Knight continued, “If you follow the films, the world in 2017 isn’t great because of the Transformers’ involvement. So he’s right and that makes for a more interesting villain.”
We got a look at Burns in action in the footage rollout, a solid minutes-long compilation that focused in on the dynamic between Charlie and Bumblebee while still showcasing some action. But here’s the rub. A particularly power-hungry Comic-Con employee made me shut off my computer during the footage so I can’t give you as detailed a rundown as I usually do, so I’m just gonna sketch out the basics and give some impressions. But here’s something; Optimus Prime makes a cameo in a hologram. Oh, and that jet you saw in the trailer? That’s not Starstream, sorry, that’s a character called Blitzwing.
The footage opens with Bumblebee sitting in a forest, his eyes glowing blue. He runs through the forest, taking fire, and we see three heavily-armed vehicles hot on his trail. He shields himself and runs, but gets slammed by another jeep. Cena stars down the barrel of a gun and has a standoff moment with Bumblebee when a fighter jet swoops in. Someone asks “Who called in the Airforce?” But it ain’t the Airforce. The bombs have a little Transformer insignia on them, and boom they’re launched at the military vehicles. It’s big bad Decepticon Shatter swooping in on Bumblebee. The Angela Bassett-voiced baddie flies Bumblebee up the side of a mountain and opens fire and says “You are herby sentenced to death,” then grabs him by the throat and drops him off the cliff. Bumblebee plummets to the bottom and get a memory core shutdown warning, just as his sight focuses on a cute little yellow WV Bug.
Then we cut to Stanfield, who knocks over some boats and accidentally uncovers the Bug. She barters with the owner, she wants the car real bad, and offers to work for him for a year to pay it off, telling him its her birthday. He tells her she can have it and as she drives of waving and smiling, he commiserates with a friend that it’s a “deathtrap”. Not so much, because when she’s back in her garage, Bumblebee transforms and the two have a tender meet cute where they’re both terrified of each other until Bumblebee cowers in a corner and she realizes he’s not a threat. They have a sweet conversation, as she tries to learn what he is without him being able to talk, and she’s filled with compassion for the robotic creature who doesn’t know who or what he is. “You sound like a Bumblebee,” she tells him and decides that’s what she’ll call him. He pops up two antenna, like an adorable little bumblebee.
After that, we see Bumblebee in action, pursued by both Cena’s villainous Agent Burns and the villainous bots Dropkick and Shatter. We get a sense of the dynamic between Charlie and her new friend, which is pretty adorable, and watch Bumblebee learn to talk through the radio. There are explosions and action set-pieces, but by and large, the focus is on the relationship between the two of them and it’s all very, very Amblin. One particular shot pulls right from the Spielberg playbook, a close-up on Stienfeld’s face, her eyes full of wonder as she stares just past the camera.