The Transformers movies are hot garbage. This isn’t a controversial statement, but it bears repeating just to lay down a baseline for what Bumblebee, a prequel to those films, has to overcome. Success isn’t particularly difficult to achieve when the hope is, “will I actually stay awake through this?” The first Bayformers film failed that standard miserably. And the prospect of another one of these, especially the off-shoot of what was at one time an attempt to set up a Hasbro shared-universe, is an endeavor worthy of the biggest possible eye-rolls.
But a funny thing happened. Somebody at Paramount decided to wise-up and actively went out of their way to find someone to helm the picture that actually makes competent cinema. The selection of Travis Knight, the promising filmmaker behind the animated Kubo & the Two Strings, suddenly threw what was a needless prequel into the realm of potential interest for many a cinephile. The selection of Christina Hodson was also an enticing one, given how boy-centric this franchise has been throughout its history (though I hear the recent Lost Light comic started to change that a bit).
And as it turns out, those two new creative minds, along with a really likable cast, centered on Hailee Steinfeld (who, between this and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, is having the best couple of weeks of any actor right now) has produced not only what is easily the best Transformers film to date, but one of the more charming blockbusters this year. Let’s explore…
Bumblebee winds the clock back to 1987, just a few years after the franchise actually debuted, and one year after the original animated feature. Opening on the war on Cybertron, we see how everyone’s favorite little yellow Autobot was sent ahead to Earth by Optimus Prime (still played by Peter Cullen as to do otherwise would have violate international law or something). It’s a marvelous little sequence with an epic peek into the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, and as someone who’s never had much interest in the mythology previously, I found myself far more curious to dive a bit deeper. It’s the best realization of that conflict brought to live action yet, and it’s basically all summarized in about 5 minutes. From there, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien, for a short time) lands on earth and immediately comes into contact with Sector 7 and their squad leader, Jack Burns (John Cena) and the ambushing Decepticon Blitzwing, leading to irreparable injury for our hero.
As a consequence, Bumblebee enters stasis and takes the form of a VW Beetle, only to be discovered in a junkyard by semi-rebellious and Smith’s loving Charlie (Steinfeld); a whiz at fixing cars, but whose brusque demeanour hides a tragic backstory. With that set-up, it turns into a Spielbergian riff, with Charlie and Bumblebee learning a bit about one another, while Sector 7 continues their hunt for the giant robot at the behest of some rather deceptive allies.
What’s easiest to appreciate about Bumblebee is the way Knight and Hodson struck a balance in storytelling here. It’s clear that the creative team has a deep love for the franchise, and they use its mythology as a way to provide shape to, but not necessarily drive, the overall direction of the narrative. This is a first contact story, it’s also a coming of age tale, and while Bumblebee occupies the title role, the truth is this is about Charlie’s own grieving process and emotional growth and she is the actual core of the film. How she dropped all of the things she valued, including a promising future as a high school athlete, and found herself aimlessly spinning out of control forms the basis of a rarity for a Transformers outing: actual characters with definable arcs! What a concept!
The whole thing is also just so very cute. Over the past number years, we’ve seen a few efforts at 80’s revivalism like IT, Stranger Things, and maybe the most immediately comparable example of Spielberg aping, Super 8: a film that may have portended this trend a bit. Though where J.J. Abrams tried to marry modern storytelling sensibilities with a lot of window dressing from his inspiration, making it feel a bit plastic, Knight and Hodson structure the story to a lot of the specific beats you’d find in films of the day. Certain scenes have a very era-tinged punctuation and it never takes the opportunity to showcase how it’s above any specific tropes that you’d come to expect. Instead, it revels in them, and somehow feels more refreshing than other homages of its type. There is just so much heart here, and it’s also rather funny. You get to see Bumblebee learn how to toiletpaper a house! That’s the scope we’re looking at here.
On that note about humor, while Steinfeld, and a nicely radiant supporting performance by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as her best pal, keep the engine humming, John Cena is hilarious in this. I missed Blockers, which was apparently where most critics learned about the pro-wrestler turned actor’s comedic chops – but his performance here is played with a heavy dose of sarcastic wit, and he gets a lot of the best one-liners. I was always dubious whenever someone were to fan-cast him in various superheroic roles, but I’ve seen the light!
And as another point of comparison of how Bumblebee succeeds where the films preceding it could not: you can actually tell what’s going on when there’s Transformer vs. Transformer fighting. Where before all I saw was a bunch of metal junk piles rolling on top of one another and into other objects, now it looks like actually definable robots in an titanic clash. Visual clarity is invaluable sometimes! And it’s no wonder why Knight has entered into Marvel Studios’ radar, he’s got some wonderful adventure chops.
Once Bumblebee reaches its inevitable conclusion, you find yourself hoping that perhaps Paramount and Hasbro might have a change of heart regarding the role this film plays in the larger series. This is Transformers finally on the right track, and I’d love to see them instead use this a relaunching pad for a whole new direction, resigning the Michael Bay era to the scrapheap where it belongs.
You have a lot of options for viewing over this weekend and the long holiday, and while Spider-Verse is still the best thing playing in theaters right now, Bumblebee is a not bad runner-up.