After the diminishing returns of the last five (yes, there were five) Transformers movies, you’d be right to have some trepidation when it comes to the latest film in the franchise, Bumblebee. But there’s some good news. The powers that be, pun intended, have righted the ship, delivering a film that trims away the fat of those previous movies, leaving a compact, character-driven, action-packed film.
In fact, the first five minutes of Bumblebee is the Transformers movie fans have been dreaming about forever. It’s set on Cybertron and features a war between Autobots and Decepticons, with plenty of cameos from the Generation 1 Transformers that made the franchise popular in the Eighties. Bumblebee is there too, but he escapes to try to find a place for the Autobots to hide. He ends up on Earth and, through another bombastic action scene, is badly damaged, leaving him without his voice or memory. It’s on Earth where the real story begins.
At the core of Bumblebee are two characters: Bumblebee, of course, a lone soldier far away from his planet, and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a rebellious teenager whose world shattered when she lost her father. Bee and Charlie have both lost their families and, as they meet and become friends, each will start to rebuild the kind of love and trust that’s so important to all of us.
Now, if that all sounds kind of sappy and un-Transformer-y then you’re on the right track. Most of Bumblebee focuses on Charlie and Bee becoming friends and getting into trouble. For much of the film, Bee is like a new pet. He’s not exactly sure why he’s on Earth, what he is, or what he’s supposed to do. So he just kind of bumbles about, which is appropriate, but does get a little bit tedious. On the other hand, it perfectly parallels where Charlie is in her life. She’s 18 and unsure about what to do and what comes next for her.
As the film progresses, both characters rely on one other to try to find their place in the world. For Charlie, that’s dealing with her family. For Bee, it’s a bit more complicated. After all, this is a Transformers movie, and while you can make the film about a robot and a teenager coming of age, there also needs to be giant robots changing into cars and planes and beating the crap out of each other.
Bumblebee is directed by Travis Knight, who most people know as the head of Laika, the stop-motion animation company that made Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo, which Knight also directed. Bumblebee is his first live-action film and while he balances the robot war and human relationships well, it’s not without some miscues. Though the film is under two hours (which is exciting itself coming off the Bay films), the middle section gets a little repetitive. Scenes of Bee and Charlie getting into hijinks are cute but overly abundant and at times a little too goofy. Also, the action is filled with odd cheats, where characters survive after being shot at point blank range or don’t kill each other when they clearly should or would.
Plus, while Bumblebee is filled with plenty of large, robot-on-robot action sequences, they are missing a little of that larger-than-life scope we’ve come to expect from the Transformers movies. Mostly, that’s because the film really only stars three Transformers: Bee, as well as the Decepticons Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux), who are on Earth hunting for him. Other Transformers factor into the plot but, for the most part, it’s just those three. While this makes sense—this is a movie about one Transformer, not the whole race—it does force the action to be dialed back a little bit.
However, the smaller stakes also make sense from a story standpoint. Bumblebee is set 20 years before the events of Michael Bay’s 2007 film, so this story couldn’t create actions that would disturb the continuity between the times. It would be weird if a dozen Transformers fought across San Francisco 20 years earlier and yet, Shia LaBeouf was still shocked to see them. No, things had to be kept contained, which has its pluses and minuses.
The Eighties setting provides real flavor and nostalgia, something that softens some of the other issues of the film. Knight has filled Bumblebee not just with relics of the Eighties like Pong and Alf, but a retro look, sound, and feel, reminiscent of the Amblin movies of the time. The film has a slightly gritty cinematography (courtesy of Enrique Chediak), a relatable innocence to the script (thanks to Christina Hodson), and of course tons of Eighties music, much of which is crucial to driving the story forward. Not to mention Knight’s Transformers have a more simple, recognizable design than the previous movies, so you really feel like you’re watching a Transformers cartoon from the Eighties. All those things make Bumblebee feel more like a John Hughes movie with Michael Bay effects rather than a Michael Bay movie with a John Hughes story.
None of this would work if both Bumblebee and Charlie weren’t captivating characters but, thankfully, they are. Thanks to some stunning visual effects work from Industrial Light and Magic, Bee’s is incredibly expressive. He doesn’t speak but you always can tell what he’s thinking and feeling just by looking at his eyes. Then there’s Steinfeld, who beautifully balances the angst of being a teenager, the struggles of a broken family, and a budding friendship with a giant robot alien. She’s rarely been better than she is in this film, and it makes everyone around her—including actors like John Cena, Pamela Adlon, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.—raise their games too.
After five Transformers movies that somehow got bigger but also worse, it makes sense that going smaller makes Bumblebee work. It has lots of good action, cool robots in disguise, and a dynamite opening to scratch the itch for Transformers fans. But it also has an ample amount of heart to make the story accessible people who don’t know Optimus Prime from Amazon Prime. I think the film probably could have benefited with being just a little more Bay-tastic in its action, but the rest of it works so well, it’s negligible. If you like Eighties movies, coming of age stories, or giant robots fighting, Bumblebee is for you.
Bumblebee opens on December 21.