Last week in my Box Office Breakdown I hinted that I may have a surprise review this weekend. Well, here it is! The “Transformers” movie franchise has been a train wreck pretty much from the very beginning. Director Michael Bay brought five movies to life over ten years that are now pretty much universally reviled by fans and critics alike. The latest entry in the franchise, “Bumblebee”, is supposed to be a new start for the series with a new director, new tone and new feel. Now this film doesn’t actually come out until Christmas weekend but thanks to the folks at Showcase Cinemas and National Amusement (who did NOT sponsor this I’m just giving them a shout out) I was one of the lucky viewers who were privy to a special showing of the film two weeks early last night and thus I get to share my take a few weeks ahead of time. Does this spin-off prequel truly right the ship for a franchise that, honestly, should NOT be that hard to make a cool movie about or is it just another horrible entry in a series that should have died long ago? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Bumblebee”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
As the war on Cybertron rages Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) sends his young Autobot scout Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) to planet Earth with hopes of setting up a base there should the Autobots lose to their rival Decepticons. When Bumblebee arrives however he is immediately attacked by a group of soldiers led by Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena) as well as a Decepticon scout. After a battle leaves Bumblebee with no memory of who he is no ability to vocally communicate he takes the form of a Volkswagen Beetle and hides in a junk yard where he is found by teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie helps Bumblebee acclimate to life on Earth. When a new pair of Decepticons named Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) arrive to hunt Bumblebee down the world gets its first taste of the Transformers and the fate of both the Autobots and Earth rests in Bumblebee’s hands.
Alright so I’ll get right to the point…WHY COULDN’T WE HAVE HAD THIS FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS?!?!?!?!?! Finally we have a “Transformers” movie that’s worth watching. Now “Bumblebee” isn’t perfect, and I’ll delve into why later, but given the previous entries in the franchise this film feels so fresh and fun I just could not stop smiling after I walked out of the theater. What a relief! Everything about this soft-reboot is an improvement over its predecessors, and I mean EVERYTHING!!! The story is more enjoyable, the character designs are much sleeker and cleaner, the visuals are more interesting, the acting and direction are solid…there’s just SO much to love about this movie specifically when you consider the horrors we’ve had to endure at the hands of Michael Bay since 2007. A lot of this has to do with the director change. Travis Knight, the President and CEO of one of my favorite animation studios Laika, is an open fan of the “Transformers” franchise and his passion and respect for the source material is on full display here. Everything feels so much more inspired and focused. The Robots are more expressive and the story contains a much better balance of humanity and action than anything that came before it. With one movie, and a prequel/spinoff/reboot at that, Knight took “Transformers” from the ashes and showed what competent direction and respect for the material being adapted can accomplish. I can’t overstate how excited I am that this is, in fact, a good movie.
But maybe I’m just looking at it through a clouded lens. Yes, it’s better than the previous films (better than all of them combined in fact) but is this movie any good when you DON’T consider the train wrecks that preceded it? Well, yeah. “Bumblebee” doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel so to speak for this franchise. In fact one could look at it from a critical perspective and note that it does follow a very similar formula to not only the rest of this franchise but other movies in general with an outcast from another world coming across an outcast human character and the two bond and help each other find their place in the world. But with “Bumblebee” the formula doesn’t feel cliché or out of place. It actually makes for a very charming and engaging story especially since we’re actually given time to understand both Bumblebee and his human companion Charlie.
Now Charlie is played by Hailee Steinfeld and she’s probably THE most likable and relatable human character this franchise has offered so far. The story and writing respects her journey while never losing touch with the fact that Bumblebee is the central character and it’s great to finally see a female lead who isn’t simply made into a sex symbol with no personality. The bond between Charlie and Bee feels real and charming. Steinfeld does an awesome job embracing her time in the spotlight as the main character and skips on force-feeding her quirks and struggles the way someone like Sam Witwicky or Cade Yeager did in the past movies. All of Charlie’s quirks are displayed over time and we learn more about her as the story progresses. Again none of this is actually really new ground but it FEELS fresh and new and when you’re dealing with clichés that is literally the most important goal, to make the viewers believe they’re seeing something new when they’re not. Take a note Michael Bay! Sometimes it’s actually alright to let your characters breath and grow on their own and let the story do what it’s supposed to do.
While not all of the CGI in this film is flawless I have to say the visuals look much sleeker and are much more appealing than any movie before it. The Gen 1 versions of Prime, Bumblebee and the Decepticons are pulled straight out of the toys and television show and they look so cool on the big screen. We also get to see the triple changers in Shatter and Dropkick, who turn out to be very fun and memorable villains despite being nothing more than Decepticon peons. Both of these character can form into two vehicles, a car and a flying apparatus, which makes them threatening, capable and deadly opponents for Bee and when we do finally see the three of them square off the action is so fun, so satisfying and, again, actually coherently directed with every blow, punch and movement feeling deliberate yet fluid at the same time. The most impressive part of the film for me is when it’s kicked off with the War of Cybertron. The opening minutes of the movie throw us right into the battle on the Autobot home world and it is just AWESOME!!!!! It’s SO much fun, so visually pleasing and feels taken right out of the television show or even the “Transformers: War for Cybertron” video games that made the rounds a few years ago. This scene alone is more exciting and pulse pounding than anything Michael Bay threw at us because, again, it’s made with respect to what the fans wanted to see and how these characters were presented in the show. I felt like I was watching my childhood come to life on the big screen…FINALLY!!! And that right there is EXACTLY what we have been waiting to see for over ten years that Michael Bay could not accomplish.
I also very much enjoyed the story and the character arcs presented in this movie although again the film does lean on a lot of clichés to get through it all. I already complimented Hailee Steinfeld but I think is bears repeating that Charlie’s story is a relatable and engaging journey where she starts the film torn up by having lost her father and seeing her family move on when she can’t. When Bee comes into her life he has lost his memory and doesn’t understand his purpose or where he is which allows the two to bond and, thus, allows them to learn from each other and lighten up. Bee forces Charlie to confront realities she couldn’t previously and Charlie helps Bee grow stronger as a soldier by giving him a new purpose for protecting Earth other than just as a base for his fellow Autobots. We also get John Cena as an agent looking to track down Bumblebee and while, again, he’s an embodiment of clichés his motivations are made clear and his own character arc from hating Bumblebee to seeing him as a hero and a soldier of peace is fun to watch as well. Cena does a decent job with the character too even if it’s not the most memorable human in any of these films but I will admit unlike past secondary human figures Cena finds that fun balance between cynical comedy and brooding badassness that you just can’t help but enjoy from an entertainment perspective.
I guess I have to start with something I’ve been saying this entire review and that’s that while everything does feel fresh and fun in “Bumblebee” there’s no overlooking that this is the same old story we’ve seen many times just with a fresh and admittedly shiny coat of paint. Movies like “E.T” kept crawling into my head as the story progressed and I’m sure a lot of people will make those comparisons as they view it too. You have to give Travis Knight credit for taking a tired formula and making it feel new again, but in the end it’s hard to overlook that as fun, engaging and charming as the story is a lot of the elements that make it great are borrowed from past movies, even other “Transformers” films. There’s a certain lack of originality even if there is a lot of imagination put into how these clichés are presented. Still even then “Bumblebee” feels like a long-lost friend where the familiarity is actually more comforting than annoying and that makes sense in more ways than one. Not only is it the kind of story that just seems to work over and over again with competent filmmaking it’s also the first time a “Transformers” movie made me personally want to watch it again right away just because I had so much fun seeing it all play out even when I knew what was going to happen.
The biggest issue for me though is that despite Knight putting his own stamp on this movie there are still some moments that reminded me of Michael Bay’s approach to the franchise and, occasionally, even stopped the film in its tracks. Charlie has to deal with some pretty girls from her school who judge her for being different and even at one point use her dead father as a punchline insult which gave me bad memories of the first movie. Charlie’s past as a diver is continuously mentioned in the film as a clear building for something later in the project which may not be specific to Michael Bay but is certainly an overused approach to a story like this. Charlie’s friend Memo, played by Jorge Lendeburg, feels like the generic sidekick that gives Charlie someone to bond with other than Bumblebee but he doesn’t really feel necessary for much of the movie kind of like Leo from the second film only not as unbearable. Charlie’s family is also really annoying and they get so much less development than Charlie herself which is something that carried over from Bay’s approach to the films although it does feel like this was more Knight making the same mistake rather than being forced to make that mistake by the studio. “Bumblebee” is a very good film, and a fun one at that but it’s not without it’s very obvious blemishes that make it imperfect and maybe a little annoying at times.
One of the biggest things about this movie though in the bigger picture is not necessarily the in-film problems but the larger implications it has on the franchise as a whole. “Bumblebee” retcons probably about 75 percent of the lore and history we’ve been fed in the Michael Bay movies about the Transformers’ past with humans. This film takes place in 1987 and presents Bumblebee’s arrival as a first on Earth. This completely ignores so many aspects of the past films where the writers tried to build on a larger overarching story to made the relationship between the Transformers and humans seem like it had been going on since at least World War II or even the Middle Ages. It was actually fun to pick out how many ways “Bumblebee” completely destroys the narrative built up over the years by the other five films and makes me wonder how in any way Paramount could possibly justify “Bumblebee” as a prequel to anything presented in the first five movies. My opinion: don’t even try! Just let it restart. “Bumblebee” gives this series a new lease on life and opens doors for a bright future for a franchise that desperately needed a transformation, pardon the pun. “Bumblebee” should be the start of something brand new for the series and not a simple soft reboot that tries in any way to make the other five movies make sense…because, let’s face it, that’s a VERY tall order.
I loved “Bumblebee”. Just plain loved it. This is exactly what “Transformers” should have always been and thanks to this movie I have no interest whatsoever of EVER watching Michael Bay’s series again. This is all I need to see. Just watch this movie if you want the spirit, personality, fun and charm of the property all rolled into one. Now that’s not to say “Bumblebee” is perfect because it’s not. It’s filled with clichés and a few annoying and unnecessary characters as well as completely destroying anything that could have possibly made sense about the larger timeline but personally, I didn’t care so much about these things because I was having so much fun. It made me laugh, it made me feel, it made me pump my first when Bumblebee got the upper hand and sit on the edge of my seat when he was down for the count. The CGI was impressive and fun to look at with sleek and stylish character designs. The main human character was likable and, well, human. There’s just so much to love about this movie even if only when comparing it to the first five films. “Bumblebee” doesn’t rewrite any book or really tackle a whole lot of new ground for film in general, but it’s finally a “Transformers” movie that is competently written and directed with vigor, inspiration and an understanding of what made the Transformers so fun in the first place which in turn makes it an engaging, memorable and exciting piece of cinema escapism that shows that even with a series in such dire straits as the “Transformers” films a new perspective can make all the difference.