REVIEW: Bumblebee – They Finally Got It Right

The Transformers franchise finally delivers a solid installment in Bumblebee. A smaller scale adventure with a lot of heart that serves as a love letter to the franchise’s roots and the 1980s while also setting up an exciting new future for the franchise.

Going into Bumblebee is an interesting experience. There was a time when the Transformers films seemed critic proof and that no matter what, you could count on a film with the Autobots and Decepticons to make money. Yet last year’s release of Transformers: the Last Knight threw that all into question as it was the lowest grossing film in the franchise by a wide margin. With Transformers 7 removed from Paramount’s schedule, all eyes are on Bumblebee for if this will be the start of a new direction for the series or a quiet ending?

The first Transformers film isn’t particularly good, but it is the most competent of the originals so that combined with the later installments getting so much worse, Transformers gets to be called “good.” Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is easily one of the worst big budget blockbusters in recent memory, due to being rushed into production because of the writer’s strike. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a slight improvement over the third one but is also so lazy that it wrote Megan Fox’s character out, but only the name and nothing else about the character. Transformers: Age of Extinction had the potential to be good and start over with a new status quo but pissed that away within minutes, bringing the series’ worst traits to the forefront. Nobody saw Transformers: The Last Knight and it appeared after five mishandled films that the Transformers were finally on their way out.

Well, sixth time is the charm because Bumblebee puts the franchise on track. Saying Bumblebee is the best film in the franchise is not a high compliment, so what is a compliment is saying it is a sweet, heartfelt entertaining film that is fun for the whole family. It’s the first based off a line of toy cars that turn into robots that feels like it is actually made for kids and the child inside everyone. This is thanks to the work of director Travis Knight, making his live-action debut here and whose animated sensibilities give the film a unique energy, a strong screenplay by Christina Hodson that manages to make an effective prequel/reboot/spin-off by bringing the scale down to a more intimate level, and a performance by Hailee Steinfeld that continues to prove she is one of the finest actresses of her generation. Bumblebee becomes a surprise holiday delight and something many could not have seen coming.

While the film draws heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant, its current film sibling might be 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Like that film, Bumblebee is positioned as a prequel to the story audiences know and includes plenty of easter eggs and set ups for that lead into the first film (basically the only one anyone likes). Yet it also disregards a lot of continuity in later films to essentially reboot the franchise. It takes the franchise set to where it began (60’s X-Men/80’s Transformers) and gives it the bright colorful vibrant look that the previous incarnations tried to downplay for being too silly.

Travis Knight, well known for directing the critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, takes over the reins from Michael Bay and it immediately shows a clear difference in style. Bay spoke clearly he was neither a fan of the original material or really cared for them outside of giving him an excuse to stage over-the-top set pieces. Knight, you can tell, has a love for the material and respects it enough to not dismiss it. He never talks down to it, but also never fails to acknowledge that he is making is a kids movie. He is making a film for kids, but also the kid in himself smashing his Transformers together. The film starts outs with a perfectly realized battle of Cybertron with fan-favorite characters looking like their original G1 inspired designs. This is the first Transformers film to look like a Transformers film. It doesn’t seem to be ashamed of its roots like the previous outings were.

Knight’s animation sensibilities carry over in how he crafts both the design of the characters and the action scenes. The Transformers are simpler so it is easier to define them in the frame. Each one is instantly iconic with their own look and bright color scheme, so they don’t mesh together in the fight scenes. The action is more clearly defined and choreographed in a way to tell what is actually happening, unlike the previous outings where it looked like someone picked up a photo of Iron Man and violently shook it like trying to erase an Etch-a-Sketch.

What is most refreshing in a franchise based off a toy line that was mainly considered “for boys,” is allowing a woman to put her voice on the franchise that helps save it. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (who is also set to write Birds of Prey and Batgirl) takes what is essentially a reworking of the A plot from the first Transformers film, where a young adolescent buys their first car which just happens to be the Transformer Bumblebee. They discover there is an intergalactic war going on and bring along their love interest for the ride, while being pursued by agents from the mysterious Sector 7. It takes the broad outline but genderswaps the lead roles out. This time it is the car enthusiast working-class girl who is the protagonist and the nerdy boy is the love interest.

While the Transformers films kept getting bigger, louder, and more bombastic they were arriving on the verge of parodying themselves. It seems the franchise’s salvation was going smaller. Making a more intimate piece with a few Transformers and actually developing them allows an audience to really get to know these characters for the first time, instead of just treating them as a way to craft action scenes. Bumblebee is more defined as a character in this one film than the previous five films combined. The two Decepticon villains Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) are the most compelling Decepticons we’ve seen in the films, which is a shame seeing how fan favorites like Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, and Shockwave were wasted in previous films.

While the previous films had tried to be “mature” with superficial elements like sex jokes, the military, and adult humor, Bumblebee actually is able to not only be the most kid-friendly film but also the most serious. Within the broader cuteness of the hijinks Bumblebee gets into (each of which actually forwards the plot and never seems just for comedy), the film takes its time to breathe. It deals with difficult subjects like losing a family member, depression and how it affects you, and thematically finding your voice/yourself in the result of loss. Both Bumblebee and the lead character Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) are both characters that have lost something important to them and in finding each other may not replace what they lost, but discover something new. In that respect of balancing both silly comedy with serious discussions in between, it does feel inspired by 80’s films like The Breakfast Club, Gremlins, and yes, of course, E.T.

Despite how much fun the action is, and seeing the Transformers in their classic designs, it is the friendship between Charlie and Bumblebee that makes the movie. It all hinges on that; if that doesn’t click then the whole movie falls apart because this is an intimate tale of friendship. Luckily it works, not just because of the script but due to the wonderful turn by Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld has made a name for herself since bursting onto the scene with True Grit in 2010. Since then she has forged an interesting path of being both a great character actress (she should have been nominated for The Edge of Seventeen) and someone not afraid of/even welcoming stepping into the world of big-budget studio pictures. Combine that with being a popular pop artist, which normally would discredit anyone from being a serious performer to many, she has been able to balance both and bring real heart to her character Charlie Watson. Balancing the difficult aspects of being both quiet and closed off, brave and bombastic, and finally able to open up emotionally to a CGI robot that isn’t really there. And when she doe she will break your heart.

John Cena delivers a fine performance as Jack Burns and falls in line with Cena’s traditional role as big strong-jawed action heroes, while also allowing him to get some of his comedic sides out (he gets easily the funniest line, calling out how dumb anyone would be for trusting someone named Decepticon). Pamela Aldon is a welcome addition as Charlie’s mom, and the presence of Angela Bassett as the voice of Shatter shows the filmmakers actually put time and thought into the character.

If you’ve been burned out by Transformers films, I get it and that might be Bumblebee’s biggest obstacle to overcome. The franchise may have finally wasted too much goodwill; this film might be a little too late. Hopefully it isn’t, because this film proves that no franchise is beyond redemption. It may not hit it out right away at the first attempt, and may even falter with a few more outings, but with the right people behind the scenes who care, a franchise can evolve fast enough to maybe change its fate. It worked for the Fast and the Furious, let’s hope it works for Bumblebee and the rest of the robots in disguise.

Bumblebee is an effective sweet little film that feels all the more impressive given the baggage of the previous installments working against it. It is allowed to be its own thing and hopefully, this is what the future of the franchise looks like. Bumblebee may seem like a simple story, but beneath this kids film based off a toy is a story of friendship and finding oneself. Truly there is more to this film than meets the eye.

What did you think of Bumblebee? Let us know in the comments below.