I liked the first trailer for Bumblebee, the first Transformers spin-off (which is meant to lead to more Transformers spin-offs). That trailer was cute and had an E.T. vibe that worked for the story of a kid and her new alien friend. We now have a new trailer for Bumblebee, and I don’t like it as much. It still works when it’s Hailee Steinfeld and her surprisingly cute interactions with Bee, but the emphasis here is on Big And Loud, and that isn’t working for me. The Transformers movies have historically been Too Big And Too Loud, and I liked the idea of a more stripped-down story for a solo outing like Bumblebee. Unfortunately, it is starting to look like any old Transformers movie, which is a lot of audio-visual garbage.
Although I will give this trailer some credit—I can tell the robots apart. More importantly, I can tell which robot is hitting and which is being hit in the fight sequences. Maybe the complete sequences end up being a mess, as per usual, but I think it’s promising that the robot action is at least discernible at this early stage. This is the first Transformers movie not directed by Michael Bay—Laika chief Travis Knight takes the helm—and it already looks better than anything Bay did in this franchise.
This brings us to a concern I have, and it’s not really about Transformers or Bumblebee. It’s about director Travis Knight. He’s been an animator and director at Laika ever since his billionaire dad, Nike founder Phil Knight, bought a troubled animation studio and got Travis an internship (Travis got promoted to the board with…no relevant experience). That studio eventually became Laika after the Knights bought it out completely. Laika has made some really good movies including Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, on which Travis made his directorial debut. The Knights saved and built something unique—they work in stop-motion animation, which almost no one else does—and the results are consistently good. But the quality of their films doesn’t change the fact that Laika is a billionaire’s toy for his son. What happens to it if/when Travis goes full-time live-action?
Travis Knight has yet to book his next directorial gig, but he’s interviewed at Marvel and seems to be pursuing more live-action work. (Laika’s next movie, Missing Link, is being directed by someone else.) And Laika’s earnings are not setting the world on fire. They mostly break even and call it a good day. Between Knight’s growing interest in outside work and middling at best returns, how long can Laika survive? What they do is unique and interesting, but Travis Knight’s interest is wandering. Will he continue to support Laika if/when his live-action career takes off? Whether or not you’re interested in Bumblebee, keep an eye on Travis Knight and what happens next.