I haven’t enjoyed a Transformers movie in a long time. The original film, directed by Michael Bay, blew me away when it was released back in 2007. However, the four sequels that followed – all directed by Bay – were moderately entertaining but became little more than big-budget sequences of explosions, crude humor, CGI, more explosions and more CGI still with very long runtimes and increasingly more bizarre storylines. For many years I’ve felt the franchise was well overdue for fresh direction and was curious to see how Bumblebee – a prequel to the Transformers franchise – would fare with a new director at the helm.
I was skeptical about how enjoyable Bumblebee would be before I entered the cinema. However, I walked out having thoroughly enjoyed the ride and was quite surprised at how fun and refreshing the experience was.
Set in 1987, Bumblebee has a wonderfully nostalgic feel similar to other sci-fi teen movies of that era – complete with everything you’d expect from that time period with the 80s clothing, big hairstyles, synth music and old household decor. Of course, the special effects here are far superior, easily better than the mainline Transformers films as we can better see what these robots in disguise actually look like, and who’s battling who. It’s also a thematically different to them as well, feeling much more similar to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. or Randal Kleiser’s Flight of the Navigator. I imagine that was intentional.
However, before the audience gets to enjoy a slower-paced story set in a wonderful 80s vibe, the film opens with a very chaotic and sometimes difficult to follow action sequence on the planet of Cybertron, the Transformers homeworld. The heroic Autobots are losing the battle with the evil Decepticons and Optimus Prime (once again voiced by Peter Cullen), their leader, makes the decision to retreat and send B-127 (i.e. Bumblebee) on a mission to Earth to prepare for the eventual arrival of further Autobots. It’s worth noting in these introduction sequences the designs of the Transformers are not like the previous films, instead resembling the more familiar designs of the original cartoons and toys (i.e. G1). After years of hearing about flames on trucks or pricey Camaros, it’s a welcome shift that should make fans very happy.
Once Bumblebee arrives on Earth, he accidentally interrupts a military training exercise when he lands, quickly making an enemy of Agent Burns (John Cena). This leads to Bumblebee becoming a military target and fleeing for his life. While trying to escape the humans he’s confronted by Blitzwing (David Sobolov), a Decepticon who followed him to Earth, the two clash in a violent encounter that leaves our hero battered, broken and with memory loss.
Directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), Bumblebee successfully brings new life and a fresh take on the Transformers franchise by scaling back the story and providing an element strongly lacking in the other films: heart. While there is the typical “saving the world” endgame to this film, the story primarily focuses on the friendship between Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a former diving champion who has just turned 18. Struggling with life after the death of her father and feeling like an outcast to both her family and her teenage peers, Charlie finds herself on a new path to happiness when she discovers a dilapidated 1967 Volkswagen Beetle in a junkyard and decides to restore him. After realizing there’s “more than meets the eye” to her new car, she quickly develops a friendship with the robot who is suffering from memory loss after a violent confrontation at the start of the film.
While this movie has a good dose of action, comedy, emotional drama and a fantastic soundtrack that comes together to provide a great cinematic experience, there’s a few stumbles holding it back. Once Bumblebee loses his memory, he becomes little more than a lost puppy, with Charlie spending most of her time training him to evade detection from both Decepticons and humans alike. There are some very childish scenes of him interacting clumsily with his unfamiliar environment, but much of this film focuses on Charlie and her inability to fit in with people her own age, her struggle with the loss of her father and the numerous failed attempts by Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) to win her tomboy heart.
While this may offer more emotional engagement for the audience, I felt too much time was spent on Charlie when I went to see a movie titled Bumblebee! To open the film up with an incredible action sequence showing what Bumblebee is capable of, only to reduce him to a bumbling, accident-prone side kick ends up being one of the main issues I have with this film. Add to that a runtime that was too long and I found myself very fidgety at times wanting something more to happen as having Charlie pining about her father for the umpteenth time was getting stale. Sometimes it felt like the filmmakers forgot this is a Transformers movie, and I wanted Bumblebee to do more and to contribute more to the story. While we do get more of the good stuff near the finale, there’s still a long middle stretch that needs some work.
Despite these shortcomings, Bumblebee is still a fun ride packed with plenty of action, humor and one amazing soundtrack that brings back some of the humanity missing from recent Transformers films. For the most part, director Travis Knight demonstrates it’s possible to have a science-fiction story filled with amazing CG effects and still have characters we can relate to and care about. Bumblebee also shows how a movie about giant transforming robots can be about more than just saving the world; they can be about the importance of family, friendship…and learning to let go. It may be hard for some naysayers to accept, but all of these things make Bumblebee a movie worth seeing. Believe it.