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Commentary TV and Movies

BumbleBee trailer’s G1 look has this jaded Transformers fan jazzed

Commentary: Those of us who grew up in the '80s are getting our Transformers back on the silver screen.

optimustiny

The original Optimus Prime is coming back, courtesy of BumbleBee. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Last night, I watched Transformers battle it out on the big screen. But it wasn't at an advanced screening for the upcoming BumbleBee. I caught the '80s animated film Transformers: The Movie.

In my opinion, it's the first time in 32 years the real Optimus Prime has been on the big screen.

Harsh words? After all, Michael Bay's Transformers franchise has, until recently, successfully chugged along with five films collectively grossing more than $4.3 billion. For the generation that grew up over the past decade, Bay's interpretation is the real Optimus Prime.

But the bombastic blockbuster version of Optimus Prime never sat well with me. Sure, he was still voiced by the legendary Peter Cullen, who did the vocals for the original cartoon, but he wasn't always the paragon of right. His design was always too busy, with the overly complicated transformation process and that creepy mechanical mouth. And don't get me started on THOSE. DAMNED. FLAMES. 

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Hello, Optimus Prime. 

Video screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

So I was thrilled by the Optimus Prime that showed up in Monday's trailer for the Transformers prequel, BumbleBee. He and classic Decepticons Soundwave, Shockwave and Starscream all hewed closer to their original '80s incarnation -- all the more appropriate given the movie's time period.

It's part of a sweeping change to the Transformers franchise designed to energize fans of the original series. I remember begging my mom for extra time to witness the latest battle between Autobots and Decepticons. Hasbro and Paramount want to rekindle that feeling. 

"We had a great opportunity with this film to go back in time," said Ben Montano, marketing director for Hasbro, during an interview in July at San Diego Comic-Con. "We took that permission to see how we push and pull the whole franchise to celebrate the last 34 years and bring G1 and whole canon of animation to fandom today."

It's also an acknowledgement that after the last film, Transformers: The Last Knight, the gas and enthusiasm had run out on the convoluted, contradictory and frankly stupid stories that spun out of the Bay-run franchise. 

The last film somehow tried to tie the Transformers to Merlin -- a drunk Merlin -- and soldiers during World War II. Take what you will from that.

Beyond the film, which hits theaters in December, Hasbro Studios and Shout Factory are putting on a one-night nationwide screening of "Transformers: The Movie" tonight to rekindle that Transformers love. Hasbro's upcoming toyline, called "War for Cybertron: Siege," glimpsed at San Diego Comic-Con, features action figures that take many cues from the original '80s line. And Hasbro is rereleasing original "G1" (generation one) toys to retailers this year.

Even one of its mobile games, Transformers: Earth Wars, got a temporary makeover that featured the classic characters, musical cues and animation style.

Now playing: Watch this: 'Transformers' trailer highlights epic Optimus Prime-Bumblebee...
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By going after older fans who may have been turned off by the increasingly convoluted Bay films, BumbleBee is hoping to widen its potential audience.

"There's a moment in time when you can bring all fans together and bring them into a unified universe," Montano said. "Our goal is to unify the fandom."

That G1 spark

I've been a lifelong Transformers fan -- my two-year-old knew how to say Optimus Prime before learning his full ABCs -- but even I had to tap out after last year's Last Knight. When I finally caught it, I was left so confused and frustrated that I swore that would be the last Transformers film I watched.

So when the first BumbleBee trailer popped up, I barely gave notice. It wasn't until this latest trailer, which debuted this week, that the film drew my eyeballs. I got chills the moment Soundwave, one of the most infamous Decepticons, emerged on screen in his original '80s form.

The capper, of course, was seeing an Optimus Prime I recognized from my childhood.  

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Video screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

"BumbleBee" director Travis Knight, who directed the 3D stop-motion critical darling Kubo and the Two Strings, has said all the right things about this project, including mentioning the desire to reduce the number of Transformers and to develop the robots as characters -- something sorely missing from the previous films. 

While Montano said some of the detail found in the Bay Transformers remain, Hasbro and Paramount wanted to focus on designs that let the robots shine.

"Our focus was on BumbleBee's head and eyes," Montano said. "He emotes so much personality."

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The famous yellow-and-black Autobot scout is full of emotion in the new, full-length trailer for Bumblebee: The Movie. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Transformer: The Movie screening also offered an exclusive clip from the film. The new scene wasn't more Transformers fighting or flashy transformations. Instead, I watched an expanded scene where Hailee Steinfeld's Charlie first meets BumbleBee. The few moments of footage, with BumbleBee huddling in the corner in fear, showed off more humanity than in all the Bay movies combined. 

Likewise, the design of BumbleBee, which goes from a flashy modern Camaro to that much-beloved classic Volkswagon Beetle, was critical to tying together the film and the toy.

"There's something humble and approachable with the G1 Beetle," said John Warden, a design manager for Transformer toys, at Comic-Con in July. "This is an exciting way to combine the puzzle of G1 Transformers with the heart of the film."

For once, watching "Transformers: The Movie" won't be my escape from those blockbuster movie Transformers. That may be the most impressive transformation yet. 

The story originally published on Sept. 27 at 5 a.m. PT. 

Update, Sept. 28 at 5 a.m. PT: To add additional quote and impressions from seeing additional BumbleBee footage. 

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