What happens when you get the man behind such animated films as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, and give him a live-action Transformers movie? Well, the answer to that is you get a movie that is pretty much the exact opposite of the Michael Bay atrocities — which have made billions of dollars for some unimaginable reason — and Bumblebee is easily the best in the franchise. Granted, that this is a very low bar, but director Travis Knight manages to pack more heart and humanity into his little Transformers film than all five of Michael Bay’s installments put together.
Bumblebee is either a prequel to the Bay-run Transformers franchise — Note: Michael Bay is listed as producer of this prequel but he did little more than cash a cheque — or if the film does well enough, it could be considered to be a soft reboot of the series, and here’s hoping this movie keeps bringing in the dough because so far it’s only managed to pull in a little over $150 million on a $135 million dollar budget. To put that into perspective, Transformers: The Last Knight took in over $600 million worldwide on a budget of $217 million, and the Last Knight was a hot pile of garbage.
Taking place in the year 1987, the movie opens with the fall of Cybertron, with the evil Decepticons forcing Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) to scatter the remaining Autobots across the galaxy, with Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) being sent to Earth to secure it as a rendezvous point for the Autobots. Unfortunately Bumblebee lands right in the middle of some kind of military training exercise, being run by badass Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena), who immediately considers the Autobot to be some kind of hostile invader. Things get even more complicated when a Decepticon arrives hot on Bumblebee’s heels, and the ensuing fire fight not only results in the death of most of the Colonel’s men — which goes a long way towards exacerbating his hatred of space robots — but Bumblebee himself is severely damaged in the fight, losing his voice and memory.
Enter Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager having trouble moving past the death of her father, stuck with a terrible job at a local amusement park, a stepdad who gives her a book on the importance of smiling for her 18th birthday, and an annoying little brother who thinks he’s the next Bruce Lee. But more importantly than all this, Charlie is also in desperate need of a car. Finding a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle in her Uncle’s junkyard seems to solve one of those problems, but when it’s quickly revealed to be a sentient robot, her problems move from domestic to intergalactic. Turns out fixing Bumblebee — so named because of the sounds he makes — activated a beacon of some sort, which nearby Decepticons hear and follow to Earth, in their continued hunt for Optimus Prime and the Autobot resistance.
Bumblebee is a sweet movie about a girl, her robot, and the importance of family, and sure there are explosions and chase sequences throughout this entry, but those are just the action-packed toppings on top of a well-layered cake. We not only come to care about a damaged robot, lost and alone and surrounded by enemies, but Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is an actual human being with not only a character arc, but actual growth as a person, and she’s also incredibly likable, which isn’t something that can be said about any of the male leads in the other Transformers movies. There isn’t the frenetic chaos that is to be found in the Michael Bay film, and Travis Knight’s history in animation has allowed him to depict transforming robots in a more organic and believable way, and we become more emotionally involved with Bumblebee and his plight in more ways than any other character we’ve seen before.
It’s clear that Knight has taken heavy inspiration from Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant — there is one particular moment when Bumblebee goes apeshit that is very reminiscent of the Iron Giant becoming a “gun” and letting loose on the army — and it is the budding relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee that is the heart and soul of this movie. That is not to say that this movie doesn’t have some serious action moments: at one point, one of the Decepticons makes a horrifying observation about humans, say it likes “how they pop,” and the human military themselves are no white knights either, launching some very brutal attacks against our little Autobot. But I especially love that John Cena’s character isn’t just a moustache twirling villain, he could easily have gone all Captain Ahab with his hatred of robots, which certainly wouldn’t be all that unjustifiable, yet instead we get a more nuanced character than what you’d expect to find from an antagonist in a Transformers movie.
Now this is a far from perfect movie; the military’s approach to the handling of teenagers believed to be in league with alien robots seemed a little too easy-going for me to buy completely, and of course it is openly derivative — Brad Bird could seriously sue Paramount here — and there are certain elements that don’t quite get proper payoffs, but overall, Bumblebee is a joyous adventure film that is fun for the whole family, and is proof that you can actually make a good movie based on a decades-old cartoon that was basically a toy commercial. Will Charlie Watson someday re-team up with Bumblebee? Only time will tell, but until then, we can at least enjoy the one good Transformers film we’ve got under our belt, and we can dream of more to come.
Bumblebee is a heartfelt action story about a troubled girl and her relationship with a robot from outer space, and if that sounds like your kind of film please make your way to the theater, we can’t risk a return of Michael Bay.