*** ½ out of five stars
The Transformers movie series heads in a whole new direction with this tale of a girl and her yellow, mute robot.
In 1987, Autobot scout B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) lands in California with the hope of establishing a refuge on Earth for his compatriots who are losing the war against the Decepticons on Cybertron. Unfortunately, an ambush by the Decepticon Blitzwing (voice of David Sobolov) leaves B-127 with amnesia and the loss of his voice box. Soon, the damaged Cybertronian, who has taken the form of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, is discovered by a girl named Charlie Watson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) at a scrapyard. Charlie’s uncle Hank (Len Cariou), the scrapyard’s owner, gives her the Beetle for free as a present for her 18th birthday.
When Charlie attempts to repair her new car, B-127’s true form is revealed. Still coping with the death of her father and her mother Sally’s (Pamela Adlon) remarriage to a man named Ron (Stephen Schneider), Charlie finds a new friend in B-127. She nicknames him “Bumblebee,” and they manage to unlock a message from Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) about the need to defend Earth, restoring some of Bee’s memories.
Elsewhere, enemy Decepticons Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux), having picked up a homing signal on Bee accidentally activated by Charlie, also arrive on Earth. They ally themselves with the government agency Sector 7, claiming to be peacekeepers on the trail of an Autobot “fugitive.” Col. Jack Burns (played by John Cena), having been injured by Bee’s initial arrival on Earth, is especially persuaded by them.
Things get more complicated for Charlie and Bumblebee. First, Charlie’s neighbor/not-so-secret admirer Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) discovers Bee but agrees to keep it secret. But when Bee is left alone at Charlie’s house, he accidentally wrecks the place and causes a massive energy spike that catches the attention of Sector 7. Will Bumblebee and Charlie hold their own against the Decepticons and save Earth?
The Transformers franchise has a long, and often rather interesting, history. It was created as a joint effort by Hasbro, Japanese toymaker Takara (now TakaraTomy), and the comic book and animation divisions of Marvel. Ever since 1984, the world has regularly witnessed new adventures of these robots in disguise through toys, comics, cartoons, video games and other forms of media. But for the past 12 years, the most high-profile incarnation of the series has been on the big screen. Between 2007 and 2017, Michael Bay directed five Transfomers movies, marking the property’s first entries into the live-action/CGI hybrid medium. Bay’s films, often nicknamed “Bayformers,” have proven highly polarizing. The films have all succeeded at the box office (save the fifth entry) but have received largely negative reviews from critics and mixed feelings among fans.
Bumblebee, directed by animation veteran Travis Knight in his live-action debut, feels like an attempt to fix many of the problems leveled at Bay’s Transformers movies. Many felt Bay emphasized the human characters as protagonists, making the Transformers feel like supporting characters in their own films. While the human characters of Bumblebee are still given a major focus, the robot characters are given a fair amount of personality. Even though Bumblebee never speaks after losing his voice box early on, his CGI animated body language conveys a good deal of charm.
While many argued that the humans of Bay’s films were not very interesting to begin with, the cast here proves endearing. Aside from the occasional hokey dialogue, Charlie is believable as a moody but good-hearted young woman. The other characters nicely support the story.
The visuals of Bumblebee are improved from the Bay films as well. The Transformers’ designs are much closer to the traditional aesthetic carried from the original toys up to modern media than the less appealing, overdetailed “Bayformers” revamps. And the action scenes, particularly the opening on Cybertron, feel more coherent and even-paced than those directed by Bay.
The film is also a 1980s period piece and often feels like a love letter to that decade. Characters watch John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club and the ALF series on TV. Several scenes in particular feel like they could have come from ’80s teen movies. For example, as Charlie and company confront the popular boy she has a crush on and his snobby girlfriend, they then go on to egg said girlfriend’s house. But the film is also critical of the military paranoia of the late-Cold War era. Sector 7 joins forces with the Decepticons so the Russians won’t. A portrait of then-President Ronald Reagan in Sector 7’s HQ makes the film’s politics especially clear. This is another contrast to the Bay films, which many felt glorified the American military. The film’s human antagonist, Col. Burns, is thankfully more than a one-note baddy, however, as he eventually sees the Decepticons’ true colors.
It’s unfortunate that Bumblebee is doing poorly at the box office so far. Hasbro, in collaboration with Paramount Pictures, has tried for several years to get a Marvel-esque shared movie universe for its properties off the ground. Bumblebee, which seems to largely ignore the continuity of Bay’s films, could be an excellent start for such an endeavor. So, I highly recommend this film to anyone who’s ever enjoyed the escapades of these Robots in Disguise, as well as those who would like to see a throwback to 1980s cinema and culture. This film is certainly more than meets the eye.