Every adventure has a beginning
For almost a decade, I’ve found myself fighting a losing battle trying to defend Michael Bay’s loud, brazen screen-smashing Transformers series, which I actually kinda dig — sure, his films aren’t high art, but no one does over-the-top spectacle better than Michael Bay. Things, however, are about to change.
After eleven years of blowing shit up in his Bayformers quintet, Michael Bay steps out of the director’s seat and into a producing role (alongside Steven Spielberg), handing the reigns over to Oscar-nominated animator/ current CEO of Laika Animation Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), to do a bit of a course correct, Knight veering the property in a different direction. Undoubtedly influenced by films from the eighties, à la 1986’s Short Circuit, 87’s *batteries not included, and Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Knight breathes new life into the Hasbro series with Bumblebee, a charming throwback to the classic Amblin-style boy-and-his-magical-pet flicks of old.
Truth be told, re-energizing the live-action Transformers pictures was never going to be easy, seeing as most of the movie-going public refer to the Bay’s robots in disguise flicks as a kind of cinematic scrapheap that’s beyond salvaging. But Knight knows stories and understands that simplicity is key, the 45-year-old filmmaker stripping things down, choosing to tackle a character-driven back-to-basics origin tale, Bumblebee finding its heart by focusing on the bond between young human and Autobot that started it all back in 2007.
Working as a spin-off, a prequel, and a soft reboot, the film begins with a rapid-fire fully animated opening on the planet of Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are in the midst of a centuries-long war against the evil Decepticons, our heroes finding themselves on the waning side. It’s clear at this early stage that the action is much easier to follow as the self-configuring robots have been redesigned to look less clunky, their transformations slowed down for clarity, each ‘bot resembling their G1 counterparts, which is sure to please fans of the ’84 cartoon — seeing a retro Soundwave and his attack dog Ravage in live-action made me grin from ear to ear. Anyhow, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen reprising his iconic role), who pops up in all his boxy nostalgic glory, decides that the Autobots should retreat, Prime sending a young soldier B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to scout a nearby sphere called Earth as a possible hideout for their kind, his task, to keep the planet safe from the eventual arrival of the Decepticons.
And so, B-127 crash-lands into our planet via flaming meteor circa 1987, interrupting a military training session led by enigmatic government agency Sector 7 commander Jack Burns (John Cena), who promptly sees the alien as a threat and hunts him down. The gunfire is interrupted by the arrival of another visitor, Decepticon spy Blitzwing (David Sobolov), who is trailing B-127, planning to interrogate him on the whereabouts of Autobot leader Prime. After a nifty action sequence, where B-127 loses his voice box and damages his memory cells, our battle-scarred robo-hero escapes his pursuers, transforming into a faded 1967 yellow Volkswagen Beetle before hiding in a San Francisco Bay Area junkyard.
Enter Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a music-loving outcast (that listens to The Smiths) who’s on the verge of turning eighteen, the angsty teen spending her days in the garage attempting to fix a classic 1959 Corvette she’d started working on with her late father, who’d recently died of a heart attack. Desperate for independence, Charlie stumbles on the old VW while looking for spare parts, bringing it home as a birthday treat for herself at the behest of her uneasy mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) and Sally’s new boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider).
Charlie, however, gets the shock of a lifetime when her rusty old Bug transforms into a giant sentient robot. Once over the initial jolt, Charlie begins to see him as an oversized puppy dog, even though he’s armed with a blaster cannon and a retractable blade, assertively naming him Bumblebee and coaching him in the ways of his new home. With his childlike naivety getting him into all sorts of strife, taking care of Bee becomes a full-time gig for Charlie, who’s also tied to a fairground job at Hot Dog on a Stick, where a nearby churro worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) — who happens to live next door — has the hots for her. But, as Charlie and her new pet begin to bond, Bumblebee’s intergalactic troubles find their way to the sleepy little beach town, with two Decepticons, huntress Shatter (Angela Bassett) and her partner Dropkick (Justin Theroux) — who’ve duped Sector 7 into joining forces with them — closing in to take the ‘renegade’ Bee out.
Written by Christina Hodson, who’s prepping to pen the Birds of Pray movie for Warner Bros., Bumblebee is less convoluted than Bay’s mayhem infused outings, predominantly focusing on three (yes, only three) Transformers, the screenplay much lighter (and generally softer thanks to the female screenwriter) than what we’re used to. An enchanting coming-of-age story for both its titular character and female protagonist, this simpler script also succeeds as a glowing throwback to the youth-oriented Spielbergian classics of yesteryear, the film managing to recapture that sense of wonder and innovation of Bay’s original Transformers while retaining the tone of a Saturday morning cartoon. Sure, at times Bumblebee can feel a bit derivative, especially of the films it’s trying to pay tribute to, but given what’s come before, it totally works.
Keeping the action stirring and visuals exciting, Knight never forgets that this is a film with eighties DNA coursing through its veins, a story set in a world where the monsters are just as frightened of us as we are of them, where the kids are always one step ahead of the adults, and where friendship is stronger than any obstacle that comes in its way. A radical throwback to the MTV-era of the eighties, Knight indulges in period-specific iconography, referencing everything from bulky Walkmans to Mr. T Cereal, TaB Cola to John Hughes classics, we even have a nod to the 1986 telly show AFL — ‘No problem.’ The soundtrack is killer also, the flick including tracks such as Steve Winwood’s uplifting ‘Higher Love,’ Tears for Fears’ excellent ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ and Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch’ from Transformers – The Movie (1986), not to mention an amusing gag featuring Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ which has been plastered all over the trailers, the music adding a timeless sorta quality to things.
Love him or hate him, Bumblebee also benefits from the groundwork laid out by Bay in his prior five installments (there are plenty of nods to Bay’s series, too), filmmakers using the previous robot designs, sound effects and Bay’s golden lensing as a jumping off point, building their movie around the ‘super cool’ template that Michael Bay is known for — it’s interesting to note that Knight never outright rejects any of the history from Bay’s movies either, choosing to sidestep it instead.
With that said, the film truly succeeds thanks to its central relationship between Charlie and her change-o-bot pal. Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), delivers a sincere portrayal as the grieving teen struggling to let go of the past, Charlie reconnecting with someone for the first time since the loss of her dad, the 21-year-old pop star/ actress really grounding the proceedings with her first-rate work. Furthermore, Knight imbues the robots, chiefly Bee, with personality and complex human kinks, using facial expressions and body language to portray an array of emotions — a Judd Nelson fist pump, for instance, is used at precisely the right moment. A sequence that plays out like a silent-comedy skit, which sees the sun-colored Beetle fumble about alone in Charlie’s home, accidentally making a ginormous mess and then making it even worse when trying to stop, is another hands-down winner, mainly because we believe that he’s genuinely distraught — again, it only works because we care about the characters and their situations.
As for the supporting cast, John Cena, Blockers (2018), is a hoot as military jock Agent Burns, the WWE superstar doing his best to wring a laugh out of every scene he’s in — a sly observation about his uneasy alliance with the Decepticons is spot on — whilst Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love, Simon (2018), is solid as Charlie’s smitten neighbor Memo, a supplementary player who’s literally just here for the ride. Small-screen star Stephen Schneider is great as Charlie’s clueless stepdad Ron, who gifts her with a book titled Smile For A Change for her birthday, while John Ortiz, Kong: Skull Island (2017), seems to be enjoying himself as the sniveling Dr. Powell of Sector 7. Last but not least is Jason Drucker, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017), who nails it as Charlie’s annoying karate-loving tyke of a brother Otis.
A rip-roaring family-friendly gem about finding one’s purpose and um, voice, there’s more than meets the eye to this latest Transformers offering. Soaked with reverence to the era that gave birth to the Transformers brand, Bumblebee is a touching, humorous, well-acted piece of popcorn entertainment, and an absolute delight of a film, one that’s sure to re-energize the ’80s toy franchise for a whole new generation. For me, though, Bumblebee signifies the end of a lonely era, as I can finally enjoy a Transformers film with the masses. Yes, Bumblebee is excellent. And I ain’t afraid to say it!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie