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June 15, 2018 at 03:24 PM EDT

This little plastic toy could be the thing that saves the Transformers.

The upcoming Bumblebee film is radically changing the look and feel of this saga about shapeshifting alien robots, drawing inspiration from the humble 1980s Hasbro toy and cartoon and aiming for more heart than bombast.

It’s such an extreme shift that there’s a genuine uncertainty whether the fans who made the rock’em, sock’em Michael Bay movies a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon will be onboard. But Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who has shepherded the Transformers franchise since the first live-action movie in 2007, says the bigger danger was keeping things the same.

“If you don’t change up, you’re also taking a risk,” di Bonaventura tells EW in a new interview outlining how Bumblebee is scrapping the Transformers model in order to save the series. “It’s one of those things where there is no simple answer. You’re taking a risk no matter what you do when you make a big expensive movie, so why not change the formula completely and really hang in there?”

If Bumblebee succeeds it will not only rejuvenate a beloved but beleaguered franchise — and it could also open the door for other standalone movies, including an Optimus Prime film.

After more than a decade in which the filmmakers feared the colossal robots might not be relatable enough on their own, the Transformers are getting more personality. And they’re finally becoming the stars of their own films.

Stress Fractures

Each time Paramount Pictures turned on the Transformers moviemaking apparatus, it generated around a billion dollars in global box office. Often more.

For over a decade, the films about the endless war between Autobots and Decepticons rampaged through summer multiplexes, fueled by years of nostalgia and an enduring desire among summertime moviegoers to see things blow up on the Fourth of July weekend. The barbs of critics were knocked aside like puny arrows against the iron hull of these behemoths.

Then, last year, the Transformers films abruptly ran out of energon.

The fifth movie in the series, The Last Knight, earned only $605 million worldwide — still a big number, but about half what each of the previous two films earned. And given what it costs to make and market one of these films (an eastimated $350 million) that shrinking profit margin was cause for concern.

“The fifth one was definitely down,” di Bonaventura says. “The audience looks for something new at some point in time, but it’s so hard to judge when. I think the lesson was, after the fourth movie, that was the when. But we didn’t see the fatigue. We didn’t see the signs that they wanted us to change up how we were presenting it.”

But the Transformers braintrust was feeling it themselves. The Last Knight went into production with no end in sight to the Bay movies (except the filmmaker’s repeated claim that nearly every installment was his last), but di Bonaventura and his team were already exploring a way to broaden the cinematic universe.

“We were headed down the Bumblebee path well before the release of the last Transformers,” he says. “We had felt that with the fifth movie, we had sort of run out of room with where to take it.”

They decided to go back in time. To the 1980s.

That’s when the Transformers (at least as we know them) were born.

More Than Meets the Eye

Anthony Breznican

Okay, here’s the short-short history for those who don’t know it: Japanese toymaker Takara had created a series of toys that could change shape from everyday objects — cars, trucks, jets, a cassette tape player, and (yikes) a silver handgun — into blocky robots.

American toymaker Hasbro thought these were amazing, so they licensed the brand and teamed up with writers from Marvel Comics to give the toys a story and some individual personalities. The toys hit American shelves in 1984.

There were the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, battling through the galaxy in search of resources, but there was also stand out figures to either love or hate. The gun turned into the megalomaniacal villain Megatron, the tape player became his monotone henchman Soundwave.

The heroes were led by tractor-trailer Optimus Prime, whose most loyal soldier was a little yellow Volkswagen Beetle named Bumblebee. Let’s put it in To Kill a Mockingbird terms: Optimus was Atticus Finch, and Bumblebee was his child Scout.

When Bay developed his 2007 live-action film, he made Bumblebee a Camaro. The vehicle’s introduction in the movie included a diss of a beaten down old VW Beetle when Shia LaBeouf’s character goes to pick out his first car.

Bumblebee transformed from being the cute little guy with a lot of courage but not much brawn to an unstoppable muscle car who fears nothing and kicks endless ass.

As they set about trying to make a Bumblebee standalone film, the question facing di Bonaventura, screenwriter Christine Hodson (Unforgettable), and director Travis Knight (a stop-motion animation filmmaker who directed Kubo and the Two Strings and produced Coraline and ParaNorman) was simple:

Could they strengthen Bumblebee by making him vulnerable again?

Camero Turns Into a Beetle

Honestly: The Beetle is not a cool car.

It’s an amazing vehicle, of course. Adorable and charming. But it’s not a sleek, high-powered Camero. It’s not something you think of as strong. It’s not cool — it’s warm.

That’s what the Bumblebee filmmakers grappled with when they considered making the change back to the character’s original 1980s form.

“That was probably the most hotly contested thing, simply because: ‘Wow …. um, and the Beetle can go fast? Ooookay,’” di Bonaventura says. “But I’ve screened [a rough cut] three times, and there has not been a single comment from the audience that they didn’t like the fact that we made it the Beetle. The warmth of it certainly helps us, but also, the sheer freshness of it is really fun.”

That shape creates the sense of an under dog, which is a good thing for a hero who is in a strange world, all by himself, trying to find a way home.

“Psychologically, you’re absolutely right,” di Bonaventura says. “It’s kind of funny. A metal guy made out of a Camaro, or Bumblebee … is one is weaker than the other? I don’t know, but it is how you feel. It is what your experience is of it, in a way.”

The other hero of the story is Charlie, a teenager who misses her father and is struggling to break free and find her own path in the world. The rattletrap old Beetle she buys at a junkyard is supposed to be something she can rebuild that will take her on that journey.

It turns out to be an alien robot, of course. Suddenly, her destiny is altered in extremely unexpected ways.

But choosing Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) for this role was also a major change for a franchise that, since its inception, has been targeted mainly at boys.

The Tomboy Heroine

Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures

“Steven had always had an idea that a young girl and Bumblebee would be a great combination, so we headed in that direction,” di Bonaventura says

That Steven is Steven Spielberg, who became a lifelong fan of Transformers after his own kids got into the toys in the ‘80s. Spielberg has executive produced all of the Bay movies, but stays out of most of the creative decisions. In this case, di Bonaventura credits him with suggesting that the star of the new movie be a teenage girl.

It was only a few years ago that the idea of a female-led action movie was considered box office poison. Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter notoriously emailed Sony Pictures to dissuade them from producing one, calling superhero films starring women “disasters.”

It’s a different world now, thanks to Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, the Star Wars films focusing on Rey, Rose, and Jyn, and the blockbuster success of Wonder Woman.

That made it seem not just logical but overdue to cast a young woman as the teenage mechanic who helps a wounded Bumblebee get back on his feet.

“It’s nice it’s changing,” di Bonaventura says, acknowledging that the Transformers films haven’t exactly delivered strong roles for women. “When we were debating it, the idea of a young girl seemed to us to be a real change in our direction.”

And Steinfeld proved to be the fearsome flesh-and-blood lead they needed. “I’m just amazed at how talented she is,” di Bonaventura says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor never miss a beat for the entire shoot. It was crazy. We ended up ahead of schedule because she was just so on it all the time. We could move quicker.”

There’s a whole generation of girls out there, teenaged, and even younger, who are connecting with sci-fi action movies that previously were considered strictly a guy’s franchise. This could expand the fanbase to a lot of young girls, who can now see themselves as the Transformers’ human pal.

The risk, however, is incensing the hardcore fanboys who have gnashed their teeth over female characters in other genre movies. Will losing that small faction matter, if millions of women and girls replace them? That seems like an easy choice.

“What we are focused on is expanding the experience, which does expand your fan base if you get it right,” di Bonaventura says. “If you get it wrong, you’ll probably have a little backlash, but I don’t think we got it wrong. I know we didn’t get it wrong with her, that’s for sure.”

The Big ‘80s

Transformers 6 and 7 have since been indefinitely postponed and moved off Paramounts release schedule, but it wasn’t clear whether the Bay movies would continue when Bumblebee was being developed. So, the creative team thought it would be best to set their story far away from the modern timeline.

They decided to go back 30 years, basing their origin story in 1987.

“We wanted to firmly establish when Bumblebee got here,” di Bonaventura says. “We thought, let’s try to tell as much of the origin story of Bumblebee on Earth as we can. We have elements in Cybertron, but really Earth is where we spend our time.”

Paramount Pictures

Bumblebee is alone. He’s on a mission to Earth that goes awry. He runs into trouble with the robot hunters of Sector 7, the U.S. government agency led by John Cena’s Agent Burns. Bumblebee is also being hunted by a Decepticon, the jet from the trailer whose identity is still being kept under wraps.

When Charlie finds him, he’s badly wounded and conserving energy by hiding out amid the other rusting hulks in a junkyard. As the bee nest in his wheel well attests, he has been down and out for a while.

Setting the story in the ‘80s was also a nod to the original fans, the ones who sustained the Transformers movies through all their modern excesses.

“It gave us the opportunity to Gen 1,” di Bonaventura said, using the term fans have for the first generation of Transformers toys and stories. “When you look at the robots, they’re not exactly like in the animated show, because they would look goofy today. But they have, I’ll say, a little more of the silhouette of those.”

Smaller Cast of ‘Bots

This was one of the most important things to Knight when he signed on to direct. The complexity of the Transformers in the other movies rendered them all a bit anonymous.

Knight likes to point out that Bumblebee needs to be huggable. And if you hug one of Bay’s robots, the exposed churning gears would probably shred a human.

Paramount Pictures

Drawing inspiration from the boxy Gen 1 designs allowed the filmmakers to create a Bumblebee and rival Decepticons who can be easily recognized only by their silhouettes.

Plus, there were too many of them.

Another change was reducing the sheer number of robots-in-disguise featured in this movie. That allowed screenwriter Christina Hodson to focus on the bond between Charlie and Bumblebee and tell a coming-of-age story at the heart of this epic action adventure.

“She wrote a really beautiful script that really played into the emotion of the relationship of the two,” di Bonaventura says. “So looking at the movie from that perspective, we thought, we don’t want to overwhelm one Autobot with too many Decepticons. So he has three primary antagonists.”

Two others, who take the form of automobiles, are also being kept secret for now.

“In that sense you really get to watch Bumblebee be lovable, be kindhearted, be sweet, be tough, be a warrior, be protective,” di Bonaventura says. “We get to see a lot of him in different guises. Years ago I worked [as a Warner Bros. executive] on The Iron Giant, which is a younger story, and therefore different. But it has similarities to that. You really get to buy into the central relationship between the human and the robot.”

Future Movies

Anthony Breznican

We’ll find out of all these changes work when Bumblebee debuts in theaters on Dec. 21. If the movie succeeds thanks to these changes, expect a very different Transformers franchise going forward.

For one, there will be more Bumblebee movies, but also possible standalone projects focusing on other individual robots.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the fans that they wanted us to do a deep dive on one or two of the robots, because they wanted to get to know them better,” di Bonaventura says. “Bumblebee was selected because he’s such a loved figure, and he’s also more emotional than Optimus. Those were the two likely characters.”

He held off on an Optimus Prime movie because the team felt, ironically, that he was too strong. “He’s a stoic leader, and you can count on him,” di Bonaventura says. “Whereas Bumblebee is the one who is more emotionally volatile. He has a lot of ups and downs. So it seemed like the best character to try for the first time zeroing in on one Autobot.”

An Optimus Prime movie remains at the top of their list. “I’d certainly like to do that,” di Bonaventura says. “It would be a very different kind of movie than a Bumblebee movie, but equally interesting and different.”

Peter Cullen, who has voiced Optimus in most of the high-profile Transformers films and cartoons since the ‘80s, has compared the Autobot leader to John Wayne, so that’s one starting point for a brainstorm session.

Right now, Bumblebee has to pull off his own film, though.

“If Bee’s successful, we can have a Bee 2, no doubt,” di Bonaventura. “We have a good sense of where a second movie would go. For me, the greatest thing that came out of the writer’s room was the sense that we could go in any number of directions. It opened up our minds to choices.”

The key to Transformers, always, has been change.

“We could do a time travel movie,” he says. “You could take almost any genre and do it. You can go back in the past, you can go to the future. So I think we’ve got an abundance of choices. It’s really more about narrowing them down than anything else, and deciding which one we think is the strongest one to go with next.”

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