SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains mild spoilers for Bumblebee. Proceed at your own risk.
If fans – or, should we say, haters? — of the Transformers franchise aren’t discussing how unconvincing the robot fight scenes are, they’re debating the intricacies of Bumblebee’s voice. One minute, his dulcet tones are completely destroyed and he’s using a blend of soundbites and music from the radio to communicate, the next he’s using the voice he was born with. And then it’s busted again. Sometimes, the problem is implied to be fixable, and sometimes it’s suggested that he doesn’t want it fixed.
So, with the sparky little yellow VW-Beetle-Autobot now starring in his own spin-off movie, it seems timely to tackle the contentious issue of Bumblebee’s voice, and attempt to figure out once and for all why it’s so all over the place. Especially since, as you’ve probably heard, Bumblebee speaks (with Dylan O’Brien’s voice) in this movie. Though not for long…
The Origin Story
For this 1987-set prequel, franchise champion Michael Bay relinquishes the reins to make way for animation genius, and self-confessed Transformers fan, Travis Knight, at the helm. It’s a brave but calculated move that might just reinvigorate a franchise that saw its fifth film, The Last Knight, take a considerable drop in profits. Amid accusations that the series has become overblown, for Bumblebee it’s very much back to basics, with a small-scale, heartwarming, coming-of-age story taking precedence over high-stakes robot wars. It works beautifully, and while the slate in some ways is wiped clean, Knight still had to take care to incorporate Bay’s tweaks to the lore.
“In Michael’s films, they changed some of the mythology, and Bumblebee speaks through the radio. That’s one of his iconic characteristics,” says Knight. “So, it was really important for me, if we were going to tell an origin story about one of the Transformers, one set in the era where the Transformers originated – the mid-’80s – [to address Bumblebee’s voice].”
As a child of the 1980s, Knight first fell in love with Transformers when he saw the original animated series.
“Bumblebee always had a voice,” says Knight, remembering the cartoon. This meant that it was critical for Knight “to understand some of these aspects of Bumblebee’s character that never really got satisfying answers as to how these things happened”.
For Knight, it was important to show how Bumblebee’s voice became damaged: “And how, both literally and metaphorically, he regains it by the end of the movie.”
His Voice Is Unfixable
That isn’t to say Bumblebee regains the power of speech as he once knew it. Instead, he finds this new, arguably more effective, way to communicate via the relationship he has with Hailee Steinfeld’s outsider teen, Charlie. It is she who teaches him about the power of music to communicate and express emotion and complex thought, and as he uses the technique more and more, we witness him become increasingly adept at it. A good thing too, since Knight declares that Bumblebee’s voice can’t ever be fixed because of what we see happen in the film. And if you don’t want that scene spoiled for you, scroll past the next paragraph now.
“He has his, whatever the equivalent of his vocal synthesizer/processor is, ripped out of his throat,” he explains. “It would be the same thing if we lost the ability to speak. We’d never be able to speak again, and the guy rips it out, and destroys it. So, no — he’s never going to be able to speak again but through this [radio] thing he’s able to communicate and express himself.”
Crawling Inside Michael Bay’s Brain
Important as it was for Knight to show how Bumblebee is irreversibly maimed, rendering him forever mute, it was less pressing for Knight to figure out exactly why Bumblebee’s voice drifts inexplicably in and out within Bay’s franchise. And he says he never questioned — or wanted to question — Bay about it.
“I didn’t want to know if Michael had a difference of opinion on that because I knew very clearly that this is why, and this is what it needs to be.”
“I had a number of conversations with Michael, but not specifically about that aspect,” says Knight. “It was important for me to just kind of sit director-to-director, filmmaker-to-filmmaker, and talk about his philosophy on the series. He’s the guy who’s been the shepherd for the Transformers franchise for the last decade. I really wanted to crawl inside his brain and just get his philosophy on things. How he approached it.
“But specifically with Bumblebee’s character, no, I didn’t ask him about that. Because in my mind I knew the story that I wanted to tell for this movie, and that was an aspect of that story. I didn’t want to know if Michael had a difference of opinion on that because I knew very clearly that this is why, and this is what it needs to be.”
Knight adds, “This movie is self-contained, so I imagine where it goes from here. And, of course, there’s the films that follow, which show you where he goes. But I might not have made that choice if I was making those films.”
Knight concedes that fans might never get satisfactory answers to the questions they have. “Look, it’s super inconsistent, I acknowledge that,” he says. “I think Michael would acknowledge that; that, oftentimes, it bounces around. I know that. He knows that. I don’t know why.”
With prequel Bumblebee garnering better reviews than perhaps any of the Transformers sequels, it’s clear there’s life in the franchise yet. Executives would do well to keep Travis Knight on for at least one more film — his vision has won over the critics and looks set to please audiences too. And if he does stay on, perhaps we’ll see some answers retconned after all — or the franchise entirely rebooted perhaps?
Bumblebee hits screens in Australia on December 20, the US on December 21 and the UK on December 24, with preview screenings in the UK on December 15, 16 and 20.