Before the press screening for Michael Bay’s fourth Transformers film, Age of Extinction, a colleague expressed optimism, hoping that this time would finally be the good Transformers movie he so eagerly wanted since childhood. I laughed at the idea, as if Bay would suddenly right the ship and cease making increasingly inane blockbusters of robotic bombast, pummeling the audience with sound and fury accompanied by casual racism and sexism. After five Transformers films (all directed by Bay), you could see how there would be a fair amount of skepticism about Bumblebee, the prequel which sees Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight taking over the morphing mechanical creatures made popular by the toys and cartoons of the ‘80s. Finally, that optimism which I scoffed at years ago has been rewarded as Bumblebee is the first good Transformers movie (I’m not counting the ’80s animated feature in discussing this franchise). It’s a film with heart and humor, and Knight directing live action for the first time crafts better action sequences than Bay’s chaotic Bayhem.
The film opens on Cybertron. In a sequence that must seem like a fantasy for Transformers fans, Bumblebee (voiced briefly by Dylan O’Brien) assists Optimus Prime (voiced as always by Peter Cullen) in battling the nefarious Decepticons. The design of the Transformers is as close to originals as they’ve ever been on screen, and the action is clear even if the plotting and dialogue is extremely ludicrous. The War for Cybertron looks to be lost for the Autobots, and Bumblebee must set up base on Earth as Optimus Prime gathers his allies to continue the fight in another location. Bumblebee comes crashing down to Earth as Agent Burns (John Cena) is in the midst of a military training exercise. As military forces try to contain Bumblebee, a Decepticon also comes crashing down to battle the heroic Autobot. Agent Burns is the first to witness that humans are about to be intertwined in an intergalactic war between Autobots and Decepticons.
Wounded in battle, Bumblebee hides as a beat up Volkswagen Beetle. In a costal town in northern California, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is an angsty teen still mourning from the unexpected death of her father. She has a caring, somewhat oblivious mother (Pamela Aldon) and a goofy, well-meaning stepdad (Stephen Schneider), as well as an annoying karate student brother Otis (Jason Drucker). Charlie works at Hot Dog on a Stick in the hopes of earning the money to repair a beat up old car in her garage. Her kindly Uncle Hank (Len Cariou) owns and operates an auto scrapyard and allows Charlie to take whatever parts she needs. It’s there that she discovers a beat up yellow Volkswagen Beetle. On her 18th birthday, Uncle Hank gifts her the car. Later that night, Charlie discovers that his particular car is more than meets the eye.
Coming to Earth are the Decepticons Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux), who want to track down Bumblebee so they can find the location of Optimus Prime. Despite Agent Burns’ skepticism, the United States military at the behest of Agent Powell (John Ortiz) strike a deal with the villainous Transformers, allowing them access to American infrastructure in exchange for new technology. As Charlie forms a bond with her sentient automobile, she befriends her new neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) and the two teens are soon tossed in the middle of a war between worlds.
It’s amazing how well a Transformers movie can work when liberated from the worst excessive tendencies of Michael Bay. Sure, the mythology of transforming robots engaged in an eternal war is ludicrous, but it’s not exacerbated by having these mechanical beings tied into the Egyptian pyramids, the moon landing, or the legend of King Arthur. It also helps that the casual sexism and racism that plagued Bay’s films are nowhere to be found in Bumblebee. All of which ensures that Travis Knight and the screenplay by Christian Hodson can focus on the characters with the action amplifying the connection between these characters.
A lot of Bumblebee plays out like a take on The Iron Giant featuring Transformers, and it winds up working as Knight and Hodson form a strong bond between the young woman and her transforming Volkswagen. The film is often able to mine its absurd concept for laughs, including one hilarious moment where the two teens and the Transformer play a youthful prank that flies off the rails. Having an earnest emotional core and a sense of humor that isn’t completely bonkers gives Bumblebee a relatable sensibility that has been entirely absent from prior Transformers adventures.
The action of Bumblebee is another highlight for the previously chaotic series. The ‘80s inspired design of the Transformers makes it so much easier to visually comprehend the action, something that’s been elusive in this series. Travis Knight’s animation background really pays dividends in the CGI action, as the director place an emphasis on capturing the feel of an action cartoon instead of shaky cam and quick edits to present a vain attempt of realism.
In case you weren’t sure that Bumblebee takes place in the ‘80s, the soundtrack and various pop culture reference are there to remind you throughout. It’s really one of the weakest element of an otherwise solid blockbuster. The songs in the film are basically just taken from an ‘80s greatest hits compilation, and their inclusion are one of the few areas of the film completely lacking in wit or imagination. Maybe it’s just me, but A-Ha’s “Take On Me” and references to Alf aren’t required to let me know which decade the story takes place.
It only took the sixth movie in the ongoing Transformers franchise for the producers to find the right tone for these movies, but Bumblebee lays out the formula for how these movie can actually work. Bumblebee has a heart and soul that hasn’t been present in any of the prior films. Being the best Transformers movie is an incredibly low bar but Travis Knight and Christina Hodson clear that low bar with ease, delivering a lively, action-packed, and often funny blockbuster. Bumblebee confirms that the only way for this franchise to move forward is without Michael Bay. It’s well past time to file a restraining order, effective immediately.
While being the best Transformers movie yet may seem like faint praise, Bumblebee delivers an action-packed, heartfelt blockbuster with a sense of fun previous elusive for the action franchise.