Will this new toy-inspired film transform the franchise’s critics?


You loved the movie, now buy the toy. You’ve played with the toy, now watch this movie. We look at the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between cinema creatives and the commercial world.

Words By Camille Hogg

Movies have always had a profitable relationship with the toy industry. From Chewbacca masks to Buzz Lightyear dolls, it’s par for the course that as soon as a film is released, a corresponding line of merchandise is unveiled, and children – and weary parents – gleefully line up to possess a tangible piece of their favourite film.

But sometimes that relationship is turned on its head. Instead of movies inspiring the toy industry, we’re seeing the reverse where films are now looking to playthings for inspiration.

Sometimes, this approach works out well. On paper, for example, it’s unlikely that anyone could have possibly thought that a film built on a range of colourful, interconnecting plastic blocks would work.

But as the Lego film franchise has continued to garner acclaim with whip-smart writing and great gags that appeal to multiple generations of cinemagoers, it’s a unique success story.

Part-nostalgic throwback, part fun, the ultimate success of this new genre of film lies in the storytelling. We only need to look at roundly-panned films like Trolls – based on the popular 90s doll – and G.I. Joe – based on the action figure – to see that nostalgia alone isn’t enough to drive a movie to be successful at the box office.

Transformers toys are another example of how the relationship between the film and toy industries can turn sour. For many, these robot-vehicle relics of the 80s were the must-have item. But when the toy was transplanted into a big screen with the Transformers franchise in 2007, their legacy just didn’t translate. Critics tore into the films’ lack of narrative, character development and quality of acting.

“The prominent action-movie maestro Michael Bay has given us the fifth movie in the Transformers toy-retail film franchise. Or maybe it is the 45th,” Peter Bradshaw cuttingly reported in a 2017 review of Transformers: The Last Knight for The Guardian. ”It is difficult to tell, just as it is difficult to remember precisely how many cars were involved in a motorway pile-up in which you have been injured.”

Ouch. But despite drawing critical ire, the films actually did pretty well at the box office. Perhaps that’s the reason that the franchise continues to labour on with upcoming film Bumblebee, released on 20th December.

Pitched as a Transformers origin story, the film begins in a post-war world where the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, are forced to leave their home when they’re ambushed by rebel faction, the Decepticons. As they scatter across the galaxy, one young bot – B-127 – crash-lands on Earth and is forced to take up refuge in a junkyard as an abandoned yellow Volkswagen Beetle.

When teen outcast Charlie is given the car by her friend on the condition that she repairs it, she accidentally triggers a signal that sends the Decepticons to Earth on the hunt for the fugitive Autobot. Charlie, who nicknames her new robot pal Bumblebee, is unexpectedly dragged into the Transformers universe, its war and the power of friendship between a human and an android.

With early reviews on the film coming in positive, it looks like the toy has finally been given the film it deserves. But while we won’t know its true impact until cinemagoers deliver their verdict, one thing is clear: The brand’s nostalgia is still very much alive and well.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Angela Bassett and Dylan O’Brien. Directed by: Travis Knight. Rating: PG13. Running time: 130 mins

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