Transformers has had a pretty bad reputation in the eyes of the general public. The franchise has been domineered into oblivion by action director supreme Michael Bay, his films laden with loud, dizzying mechanical mayhem, humor that often tries much too hard, and scantily clad women. What started out as exciting back in 2007 quickly soured, the films progressively became worse, and last year’s unforgivable The Last Knight was seemingly the final nail in the coffin for the once mighty franchise. But money’s gotta be made, so Paramount switched gears and decided to launch their own Transformers cinematic universe, kicking things off with a Bumblebee solo movie. And while that may seem like the worst possible idea, a new director is at the helm, Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), and thanks to him, Transformers fans can finally rest easy. This is the film they’ve been waiting for.
Set in 1987, Bumblebee serves as both a quasi-prequel to Bay’s Transformers films as well as a soft reboot of the franchise as a whole. Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien), fleeing from the war that is ravaging his home planet, crash lands on Earth. He’s being hunted by two Decepticon baddies, Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett), as well as the United States government in the form of an elite squad led by Agent Burns (John Cena). With nowhere left to run, Bee disguises himself as a VW Beetle, where he’s discovered by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl on the cusp of 18. The two of them are loners, and it’s through each other that they try and discover their place in the world.
It might be enough for this film to simply not be made by Michael Bay in order to be good, but Knight shows genuine interest for the source material and a rounded grasp of story, turning Bumblebee into not just a good Transformers film, but a good film in general. Unlike Bay’s soulless creations, Bumblebee has enormous heart – the entire thing is fueled by strong emotion, something you might not expect to see in a movie where giant robots punch each other on sight. In what is basically a live-action version of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie is the core of the movie, and the time and care given to that relationship, as well as a remarkable performance by Steinfeld, will turn on the waterworks for even the most cold-hearted people.
If there’s anything to be admired and gained from Bay’s films, it’s the downright incredible special effects, and those thankfully carry over into this film. Bumblebee himself is a stunning achievement of ILM – he’s a badass fighting robot when he needs to be, but most of the time he’s an adorable, shy, and goofy companion. He’ll easily take his place among the most beloved characters from children’s fiction thanks to his loveable, funny, and sweet demeanor. A lot of credit has to go to the character’s new design, which does away with the muddy and jumbled look of Bay’s robots in favor of the simpler G1 look from the classic Transformers line, which is much more pleasing to the eyes.
The jokes are actually funny, the villains have actually actual personalities (sorry Megatron), and for an action movie, it shows enormous restraint. The first ten minutes is one big action piece that goes from the planet Cybertron and carries on to Earth, but once that’s over, there’s almost no action at all until the finale. Bumblebee’s focus is on the relationship between girl and machine, and it’s all the better for it. Steinfeld is nothing short of incredible in this film, selling true wonder, warmth, and sympathy towards a giant robot that isn’t actually there. Charlie is a great character, she’s witty and smart but genuinely struggles, and the film doesn’t shy away from how difficult and frustrating those struggles can be. She and Bumblebee only have each other, and need each other. The two are processing grief together: for Bee, it’s the loss of his friends and his homeo, for Charlie, it’s the loss of her father. That core emotion, dealing with personal loss and learning how to let go and continue living, is a wonderful foundation for a film to be built on, especially for children, and the fact that it’s done with the idea that sometimes what you need is a friend who understands your pain and someone who can go through this time with you is pretty powerful.
There’s a whimsical atmosphere surrounding Bumblebee; it feels like a callback to the fun and heartfelt family films of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Its brilliant decision to actually take place in the late 80s, complete with a classic 80s soundtrack, is a nostalgic throwback to the time when Transformers first hit the shelves and airwaves, and it’s something that will make fans who have been around since then misty-eyed. And while it’s certainly cashing in on audience’s current lust for nostalgia, it also has plenty to offer newer and younger fans. The films just works on pretty much all levels, thanks to the wise choice to build it around character, relationships, and emotion, and leave the robot fighting action on the backburner.
Bumblebee is exactly what the first Transformers film should have been. It’s incredibly well done, backed by powerful emotions, it’s fun and funny, and genuinely great for all ages. It’s a reminder of what made Transformers so loved in the first place, and Knight shows true care for that while still embracing the future. While this is the first of many rumored sequels and spin-offs, the larger universe and lore of the Transformers is secondary – this is a standalone story about a young girl who finds a friend, and those two friends grow to need and learn from each other. There’s something honestly magical about it. Finally, the world has a great Transformers movie.