Lost in Translation has covered The Transformers before, both the G1 cartoon and Michael Bay movie. The quick recap – two factions of giant robots, the Autobots and the Decepticons, from the war-ravaged world Cybertron, arrive on Earth. Both sides need energy, but the Autobots are willing to work with the inhabitants of Earth to get what they need while the Decepticons take it by force. Leading the Autobots is Optimus Prime, usually voiced by Peter Cullen, a wise robot who favours peaceful means but will fight when pushed. The Decepticons are led by Megatron, who rules through force and fear, though he keeps Starscream around anyway. The various Transformers series and movies may or may not tie into the same continuity, so different series can and have played around with canon.
Before getting into Bumblebee, let’s look at Bumblebee, the character. Bumblebee was part of the first line of Transformers sold in toy stores, being available from 1984 until 1986. In the G1 cartoon, he was one of the first Transformers seen on screen, during the Autobot-Decepticon war on Cybertron. Bumblebee was also the first Transformer to meet humans, the Witwickies. Bumblebee is as iconic as Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Starscream.
What makes Bumblebee approachable is that he comes across as being a younger Autobot, relatable to the younger audiences. He’s not that large for a giant robot. His original alternate form was a Volkswagen Beetle, a car whose popularity came from how cute it looked instead of performance. Adding to the innocense of the character, the Beetle was part of the hippie movement and Flower Power in the Sixties. Bumblebee, despite being an Autobot soldier in a war fighting Decepticons, looks innocent and relatable. Perfect for being the first Autobot to meet humans and for being the first Autobot to headline a movie solo.
Bumblebee opens on Cybertron. The Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons. Optimus Prime, once again voiced by Peter Cullen, is sending out scouts to find a location for the Autobots to hide and rebuild. B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth, landing in an military training facility in California of 1987. The soldiers, led by Sector 7 agent Colonel Burns, played by John Cena, chase the Autobot scout. B-127 takes advantage of seeing a Willys Jeep and takes on its form to get some space, only to wind up trapped at a mine. The Autobot does what he can to not hurt the humans.
Unfortunately, B-127 was followed. Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov) has no problems with collateral damage on his mission to find out where Optimus Prime is. During the battle with B-127 and the subsequent interrogation of the Autobot, Blitzwing winds up killing almost all of Burns’ unit, save the Colonel himself. The Autobot manages to destroy Blitzwing, but is unable to speak after the Decepticon destroyed his voice box and is so damaged that even his memory core fails. Before collapsing completely, B-127 sees a Volkswagen Beetle and transforms into the same vehicle.
Elsewhere, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, who played Spider-Gwen in /Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/[http://codex.seventhsanctum.com/2019/01/19/lost-in-translation-279-spider-man-into-the-spider-verse/]) is not having a good life. She has all the angst of a teenager of the late Eighties – bad job, dealing with the clique of Heathers of her school, an annoying younger brother, Otis (Jason Drucker), and a new neighbour, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), who is romantically interested in her – plus she aches over the loss of her father. Her mother, Sally (Pamela Adlon), has remarried to Ron (Stephen Schneider) and has moved on with her life. Charlie, though, can’t.
To feel closer to her late father, Charlie uses the money from her food concession stand job to buy parts she finds at her Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) junk yard to rebuild a classic Corvette. When searching for a key part, she discovers an old yellow Beetle under a tarp. She checks out the car and has one of her rare smiles. Charlie pays for the parts and heads home. The next morning is her eighteenth birthday. Her mother and stepfather give her well-meaning gifts. Still down, Charlie heads to her uncle’s junkyard and pleads with him, offering anything, including cleaning the bathroom there, just to get the Beetle. Hank gives the car to her, not expecting the Beetle to start. Charlie, though, learned mechanics from her father and gets the Beetle home. She also gets the car’s radio going briefly.
B-127’s radio not only gets local stations, it also broadcasts his location. Two Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) pick up the signal while executing an Autobot lieutenant on one of Saturn’s moons. The trace the signal to Earth, the western coast of North America.
She starts to suspect that the Beetle might not be what it looks like when an unusual part drops from the undercarriage. B-127, now having amnesia due to the memory core failure, is as afraid of her as she is of him. The two manage to communicate, the Autobot through body language, and learn about each other. Charlie also gives him a name, Bumblebee, because of his colour and the Beetle’s basic shape. On an outing, they walk into some woods to be alone. Bumblebee shows what happened to his voice box. Charlie does what she can to fix it and repairs a holographic projector and a memory cell. The contents of the cell get projected – the last orders Optimus Prime gave to Bumblebee, protect Earth from the Decepticons.
Shatter and Dropkick arrive on Earth and adopt a new form, cars. It turns out that they are Triple Changers[https://tfwiki.net/wiki/Triple_Changer], picking up a second alternate form, a jet and a helicopter, respectively. They head west, but run into Agent Burns with a lot more backup than before and Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). Powell wants to treat the situation as a first contact moment, negotiating peacefully with the aliens. Burns is more wary, having seen what one can do. Shatter, though, presents herself and Dropkick as emissaries from the Decepticons looking for a renegade who needs to be brought back to Cybertron. While Powell and others at Sector 7 are convinced, Burns shows a bit more genre savviness and points out the name, Decepticons. He’s overruled, though.
Every character has an arc in the movie. Charlie’s is to move on with her life without forgetting her father. Bumblebee’s is to regain his memory and protect Earth. Being voiceless through most of the movie, Bumblebee has to communicate through body language and his eyes. For a non-human CGI character, Bumblebee does this well. The movie is essentially a story about a girl and her car that changes into a robot.
Unlike the previous entries in the live-action Transformers series, the Transformers seen in Bumblebee resemble their G1 cartoon appearances. In particular, Soundwave, Shockwave, and Starscream are easily recognized. Soundwave even sounded like his G1 cartoon counterpart, especially with “Ravage, eject!” And, yes, Ravage went from cassette to robotic jaguar. There’s a number of Easter eggs for fans of the G1 cartoon. Given the Eighties soundtrack, “The Touch” by Stan Bush, featured in the 1986 The Transformers: The Movie did come up.
Bumblebee is also a prequel to the Michael Bay movies. Sector 7 is shown in its early stages. A young Agent Simmons (Nick Pilla) appears in Sector 7’s headquarters. However, familiarity with any other Transformers property isn’t needed to watch the movie. The number of Transformers on screen at any one time is no more than three once off Cybertron. On Cybertron, Optimus Prime is notable, but the others are there to boost the armies on both sides. They’re not important to the story in Bumblebee beyond showing the desperate situation B-127 is leaving. Knowing what’s coming is also not important. While Bumblebee’s voice is damaged, the reason for it is shown on screen. The story uses the damage to help build the relationship between Bee and Charlie. The focus is on those two characters, not the wider context of the cartoon and movies.
While the movie is very much a science fiction action flick, the core of it belongs to the characters Bumblebee and Charlie. While Charlie was created for the movie, Bumblebee wasn’t. The goal, then, is to determine if the character made the translation over. Of course, the various Transformers series and the live-action movies all have differing continuity. It’s a feature, not a bug. It does make judging whether the movie works as an adaptation.
The key part is what was covered about the character of Bumblebee earlier. He is a friendly introduction to the Autobots, close to human size, with a cute exterior that isn’t normally threatening. Throughout Bumblebee, the Autobot took pains to not hurt Charlie or her friends and family on purpose. He went out of his way to warn Agent Burns, trying to protect him from the Decepticons. Bumblebee is a protector, not a destroyer. The only time he was a threat to humans in the movie was when they were a threat to Charlie. Also, throughout his incarnations, Bumblebee is loyal to Optimus. This, too, carries over, even with Optimus on Cybertron. Considering Bumblebee’s amnesia, this core of his personality still survived the memory core failure. From the character perspective, Bumblebee remained true to his previous incarnations.
The loose continuity in Transformers media does complicate matters, but in the movie, Bumblebee has his classic yellow VW Beetle alternate mode. While licensing was an issue with the first live-action movie, this wasn’t a problem for Bumblebee. Using a Beetle allowed the film to have fun with a chase sequence; Beetles weren’t know for being fast, just cute. The use of the Beetle kept the movie light.
Overall, Bumblebee is a good live-action adaptation, fitting in with the continuity of the Bay films while still standing alone. No knowledge of the character is needed, yet the character is true to both his previous appearances in the Michael Bay films and his animated counterparts.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the problems faced when adapting toys. With the issues in mind, let’s see how Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers stacks up.
The Transformers toy line first appeared in the US in 1985. The core concept of the toys were robots that changed shape into other forms, mostly but not limited to vehicles, becoming small puzzles to solve by the children playing with them. Hasbro licensed lines from first Takara then Bandai, bringing them together as the Autobots and the Decepticons. After the success of the G.I. Joe relaunch as action figures, especially after the related cartoon and comics, Hasbro worked with Marvel to bring out Transformers, integrating the toy and the animated series. The first generation of Transformers were a hit. The success of the line and cartoon led to an animated feature film, which introduced a new line of Transformers toys. Later animated series would either form their own continuity or have a tenuous link to the Generation 1 series.
With Generation 1, several details were set. The heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, voice by Peter Cullen in the cartoon, defended Earth from the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, voiced by Frank Welker. The Autobots were mainly, but not exclusively, ground vehicles, from Prime’s tractor-trailer rig to Bumblebee’s Volkswagen Beetle. The Decepticons had a mix of aircraft, including Starscream and his squadron, and non-vehicular machines, including Soundwave, a non-working radio and cassettes, and Megatron, a Walther P-38 with similar attachments as seen in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.* The next wave during the original run of the cartoon included non-vehicle Autobots, including Blaster, Perceptor, and the Dinobots, and cars for the Decepticons, including the Constructicons, the first combining set for the line. Each side had a symbol to signify which side the toy was one, Autobot or Decepticon.
Both the Autobots and Decepticons come from a distant world, Cybertron, where the main lifeforms are sentient machines. The two sides had been engaged in a long civil war, started when Megatron tried to take over as ruler of Cybertron. The war depleted energy reserves on the planet, forcing both sides to go looking for more energon. The Autobots left on a spaceship, but the Decepticons managed to get on board. The ensuing fight damages the ship, placing all the robots on board into stasis. The ship crashes on an unknown planet and lays dorment for millennia.
The Decepticons are the first to awaken. The ship’s computer, Teletraan-1, also reactivated, scans for the dominant forms, providing them to the Decepticons. The Autobots also get new forms when they awaken. However, the new forms aren’t the dominant species of the planet, revealed as Earth. Instead, they are vehicles used by the dominant species, humans. Megatron plots to drain the energy from Earth while Optimus Prime meets with several humans, including “Sparkplug” Witwicky and his son, Spike. Optimus staved off Megatron’s attempts to plunder the Earth with help from the Autobots and, indirectly, from Starscream (voiced by Chris Latta), Megatron’s scheming second-in-command who would as often as not wreck the Decpticon leader’s plot.
As to be expected in a series based on a large toy line, both sides had a large cast. However, each side also had core characters. On the Autobots, there was Optimus Prime, Bumblebee (voiced by Dan Gilvezan), Ironhide (Cullen), Ratchet (Don Messick), and Jazz (Scatman Crothers). The primary Deceptions were Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave (Welker), and his cassettes Laserbeak, Rumble, Ravage, and Frenzy (all Welker**). Even as new toys were introduced, the core cast remained.
While the Autobot-Decepticon war was the main plot device, as the animated series continued, two other general stories emerged. The first type dealt with how the Autobots adjusted to life on Earth, with the people of Earth learning how to adjust to their new neighbours. The fight against the Decepticons would appear in some of the these episodes, but the thrust was on how the Autobots were learning about life on the planet. The other type of story was essentially “Transformers in Space”, with both the Autobots and Decepticons encountering strange new life and civilizations. These episodes tended to clash with the rest of the series.
Notable later series includes Beast Wars/Beasties***, a Mainframe Entertainment produced series using CG animation, and Transformers: Animated, which followed the success of the live-action film. Each series released had its own set of toys; or, each new set of toys had its own series. The cartoons had mixed success; Beast Wars/Beasties lasted several seasons before becoming Beast Machines, which itself wasn’t as successful.
The live action Transformers was announced in 2005. Fan reaction was mixed. Early designs leaked out, causing some stir. However, the announcement of Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus went some distance to assuage fears. The Autobots, despite the film’s approach in designing them as alien, still looked like their classic appearances, including colours. The film also is its own continuity, its own cinematic universe. Given that prior to the film’s release, there had been multiple continuities in the animated series, it wasn’t a problem. The creation of the Transformers cinematic universe also helps with the adaptation.
Transformers has three separate but related stories running through it. The first features an American special forces team in the Middle East, survivors of a night attack by an unknown hostile force. The second follows a small group of hackers pressed into service to crack an alien code after an attack on Air Force One. The third is boy meets girl, boy tries to impress girl with the help of his alien robot car. The three stories come together in the form of giant alien robots looking for an ancient artifact, the All-Spark.
Scorponok’s attack on the American military base was to search computer records related to the All-Spark. The soldiers on the base manage to cut off the data, leading to Scorponok destroying the base. Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) leads his team away from the destruction. Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), though, managed to get an image of Scorponok in robot form, causing the Decepticon to give chase. The team finds an oasis with cover, civilians, and cell phone coverage. Lennox calls in an airstrike. The first wave barely staggers the Decepticon, but a second wave using heavier weapons and sabot ammunition, drives Scorponok away, leaving his stinger behind.
The Pentagon, aware of the attack on the base and of a hacking attempt from inside Air Force One, start their own investigation. Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor), one of the analysts working on the project, secrets a copy of the date to take to Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson), a hacker of her acquaintence. However, the FBI is aware of the data theft and take both into custody, where they are turned over to Sector 7 through Agent Simmons (John Tuturro) and pressed into service.
Elsewhere, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBoeuf) managed to earn an A in his classes. His father, Ron (Kevin Dunn), follows through on a promise to pay for half the cost of Sam’s first car. At the car lot, Sam finds an old yellow Camero. While the price is initially too high, the dealer (Bernie Mac) agrees to Ron’s offer after the Camero sends out a pulse that damages the rest of the stock. While Sam believes the car is his, and tries to impress classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), the Camero has a mind of its own.
Interweaving the three plotlines is Frenzy (Reno Wilson), a Decepticon spy and the source of the hacking attempt on Air Force One, and his search for the All-Spark and Megatron through the only link he has, the eyeglasses of Captain Archibald Witwicky, Sam’s great-great-grandfather, who found Megatron. Despite the attempts by the Pentagon to block the hack, Frenzy found enough to link the glasses through to Sam, and passes the information on to Barricade (Jess Harnell). Barricade, in his form as a police cruiser tracks down Sam. He generates a hologram to arrest Sam, but the teenager gets help from an unexpected quarter, his new car, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan). Bumblebee and Barricade drop their façades and transform to their robot forms to fight; Bumblebee doing what he can to protect Sam and Mikaela.
Sector 7 also tracks down Sam, thanks to Barricade arresting him. Sam had reported that his car was stalking him, before Bumblebee revealed himself, alerting Sector 7. However, Bumblebee managed to get a message sent prior, summoning several of his Autobot allies. Optimus Prime, Jazz (Darius McCrary), Ironhide (Jess Harnell), and Ratchet (Robert Foxworthy). The Autobots try to extricate Sam and Mikaela, but in the confusion, Sector 7 takes Bumblebee, Sam, and Mikaela prisoner, leaving the glasses in Prime’s possession. Sam, Mikaela, and Bumblebee are taken to Hoover Dam, which turns out to be a secret installation housing both the All-Spark and what Sector 7 calls Non-Biological Entity One, or NBE One. Sam, thanks to conversations with the Autobots, recognize NBE One as Megatron (Hugo Weaving).
Lennox’s special forces team, now safely back in the US, are ordered by the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) to go to Hoover Dam. Lennox’s team is the only one with first hand knowledge on how to defeat the alien robots. Unfortunately, Frenzy has tagged along, disguised as Sam’s cell phone. Frenzy locates Megatron and shuts down the cryonic stasis Sector 7 had been keeping him in. Megatron revives. and summons his Decepticon soldiers, Starscream (Charlie Adler), Barricade, Devastator, Bonecrusher (Jim Wood), and Blackout. As Megatron escapes, Lennox and his team force a stand-off with Sector 7 agents. The tension is broken by the Secretary of Defense who orders Simmons and Sector 7 to release Bumblebee and Lennox to accompany the Autobot, Sam, and Mikaela as the trio takes the All-Spark to the nearby city.
The remaining Autobots catch up and join the convoy. In the city, Lennox and Epps make contact with a F-22 Raptor. Ironhide recognizes the jet as Starscream, confirmed by Epps because of the low altitude the jet flew at. The Autobots barely have time to prepare for Starscream’s attack and Bumblebee loses his legs. The other Decepticons arrive, leading to the climactic fight with the Autobots trying to defend Sam and the All-Spark from Megatron’s forces. The Autobots lose Jazz who is ripped in two by Megatron. One the Decepticon side, Starscream is the only one to escape, with Megatron defeated by Sam and the All-Spark.
The key to the movie is that it is based on the Transformers line of action figures, not the Generation 1 cartoon, even though the original toy line was tied closes to the series. Helping here, as mentioned above, is that the movie is the start of the Transformers cinematic universe and its own continuity, something that prior animated series had also pulled off. That said, there are efforts to remain accurate to the toys. Both Optimus Prime and Bumblebee keep their colour schemes, Ratchet is still an ambulance, Starscream is a modern jet fighter. Just as critical, perhaps moreso, is the return of Peter Cullen as Optimus, still capable of giving the same inspirational speeches as in the Generation 1 cartoon.
In the cases changes were made, there were some shout outs to the original. Due to licensing restrictions, the movie could not use a Volkswagen Beetle for Bumblebee. However, the car that Camero Bumblebee sat beside in the dealer’s lot was a yellow vintage Beetle. With Optimus, the progress of time meant replacing his original cab-over form with a long nose truck, with a similar change happening with Starscream’s vehicle form. Starscream, though, still disappointed Megatron with his failure to acquire the All-Spark. Megatron has his distinctive helmet design and an arm cannon, and both he and Optimus had melee weapons as seen in the Generation 1 theatrical animated movie, Prime with a red-orange sword and Megs with a ball-and-chain. And, like the Generation 1 cartoon, the movie had its own toy lineup.
As a film, Transformers has some issues. Technical issues prevented the title characters from appearing for most of the film; the rendering of robots in disguise was pushing the envelope in computer animation. Michael Bay is best known for action sequences, and the ones seen in Transformers are breathtaking. However, some of the purely human scenes have issues. As an adaptation, though, even with the limitations in the ambitious rendering, the movie captures the essence of the Transformers.
* Megatron’s change to Galvitron, with an artillery piece alternate form, eased some concerns about the sales of a toy gun.
** Frank Welker, voice of the Decepticons.
*** Some countries had restrictions on using the work “War” in a title of a children’s series, thus the alternate name.