For 10 years, Michael Bay took the Transformers property and made a tetralogy of awful, bloated, formulaic films that were the most consistent example of how terrible blockbusters can be. Thankfully after The Last Knight underperformed at the box office, that series has now been canned. But Bumblebee is an interesting mix, billing itself as a prequel yet being something of a soft-reboot. This is somewhat due to Michael Bay now just being a producer and former LAIKA Studios president Travis Knight of Kubo and the Two Strings fame getting the reins to tackle a story about one of the most popular characters in the franchise. Thank the lord for that, because Bumblebee is the first good film in this franchise.
During the war of Cybertron, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee (briefly voiced by Dylan O’Brien) escape the planet whilst being pursued by various Decepticons. Bumblebee arrives on earth in 1987 and is soon found by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a grieving teenager distant from her family and being crushed on by Memo (Jorge Lendenborg Jr). Bumblebee and Charlie befriend each other, but soon they both get involved in a government plot to capture Bumblebee under the false assumption that he is dangerous to humanity.
The stakes are refreshingly low-key for a Transformers story and a blockbuster in general, as there is a strong focus on character and story, so much so that there is maybe only 30 minutes of action sequences. Whilst the story contains some conveniences and the plot does initially have issues balancing the military plot and the Charlie/Bumblebee story, they soon fit together organically. The influence of E.T. and The Iron Giant is clear, but it still manages to feel like an actual Transformers film, especially in the various 80’s tributes (Transformers itself being an 80’s entity). Every aspect is a major improvement on Bay’s bloated, repetitive, and cynical films.
An aspect that properly carries this film is Charlie’s character and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance, both of which are so good that they make prior leads Shia Labeouf and Mark Wahlberg look like amateurs. Whilst this might not be a surprise given how fantastic an actress Steinfeld is, the character is written perfectly. Charlie is incredibly likeable and sympathetic, but she also has a rebellious and hardened attitude that Steinfeld nails down to a tee.
Her and Bumblebee’s relationship is by far the strongest part of the film because of how well developed it is, with Bumblebee himself being an extremely endearing character that you come to care about. The storyline of Charlie getting over a death in the family is not at the forefront, but it adds a nice dramatic layer to her characterisation, with a couple of scenes being so well acted that it almost got me to cry. Though the awkward placement of the conclusion to this plot does undermine it (the ending cuts to a title and then a director credit, then another two scenes start up, one of which should have been the ending).
The human characters are given a lot of focus but unlike the previous films they do not overshadow the Transformers themselves. The comedy that is integrated with them feels natural and is genuinely funny, even if some jokes do not land. A character like Memo could have been unbearable, but he ends up being a very endearing sidekick. The cast in general work very well, especially John Cena, who takes material that can sometimes be cheesy/cliched and plays it so straight that it becomes entertaining.
Travis Knight shows how much his background in animation benefits the Transformers universe, especially in the fully animated War on Cybertron sequence that I bet every fan has wanted to see on film. The effects are fantastic and especially lifelike despite being entirely digital. Knight also utilises a smaller aspect ratio and a good balance between close-ups and wide shots, making the action scenes easy to follow and the scale feel realistic. Finally, the 80’s soundtrack is great and is integrated well into the story.
Bumblebee blows both the Bay films and every previous toy-centric adaptation (like the G.I. Joe and Bay produced TMNT films) out of the water. It works as a heartfelt sci-fi film and a good Transformers adaptation. Whilst I wish that this was the first film in the series and not the sixth, it is remarkable that I’m now looking forward to what this property can bring forth.