To be completely honest, I’ve never been a huge Transformers fan.
I’ve always liked the franchise, but it wasn’t a line of toys I grew up with. As a result, the recent Michael Bay franchise of films has more or less been my closest connection.
… But even then, I only watched the first two or three. And I would be lying if I said I remembered anything even remotely well past bits of the first movie from over 11 years ago.
So I was hesitant to watch the newest Transformers movie, Bumblebee — in spite of the fact that I knew it was distinctly different from the Michael Bay series. Especially on the insistence of my friend Juan, who is a huge Transformophile.
I suppose I felt a little intimidated about the prospect of going to see this kind of movie with him. Though I’m glad I got over that, because boy did I have far more fun than I expected to.
Bumblebee is leagues better than any of the Michael Bay Transformers films for a number of reasons: Its character development, dedication to a setting and mood, as well as its visual design.
Disregarding its titular character, Bumblebee is led by Hailee Steinfeld, who apparently had a phenomenal 2018 by showing her prowess in live action here and in animation through Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Steinfeld’s character Charlie is the down-on-her-luck angsty tomboy teenager who finds Bumblebee broken down in a mechanic’s junkyard and becomes his best friend/protector.
It’s a cliché relationship that was essentially the exact same dynamic between Bumblebee and Shia LaBeouf’s character in the 2007 Transformers. It includes all the beats you’d imagine off a story where the girl’s father died and she can’t move on, only to learn the lessons she needs to through saving the world.
However, the clichés don’t bog Bumblebee down at all. If anything, they make the movie better because of how much the filmmakers lean into them.
Steinfeld brings far more chemistry to bonding with Bumblebee than LaBeouf ever did. In one two-hour picture I loved their kind of goofy, mutually beneficial relationship and had no trouble believing she was in the same room as a giant robot.
As hilarious as it was when I realized wrestler John Cena was going to be a prominent antagonist, he wound up pouring so much into the performance that I couldn’t help but love him.
Granted, I honestly couldn’t tell you his character’s actual name because I just saw him as John Cena the whole time. But he was so fun that I didn’t mind.
Another reason Bumblebee succeeded in capturing my heart is because it played itself as an unapologetically cheesy 80s movie. Not only did that give it an identity, but it served as a somewhat clever underlying commentary.
Like the Transformers were literally going back to the time when they were created, both in visual aesthetic and spirit.
After an opening action scene on Cybertron (which, like every action scene, was better choreographed and more visually appealing than any previous Transformers movie), diving into the life of Charlie tells us everything we need to know about Bumblebee‘s world.
Charlie, that angsty teen facing tragedy archetype I mentioned, works at a pierside Hot Dog on a Stick where the full range of 80’s teen comedy cast members appear. The awkward next door neighbor/unrequited lover, the mean high school girls, the jock who takes his shirt off after some awkward hi-jinks.
If it weren’t for the killer robots, you could mistake this movie for something akin to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It crafts great characters and loving relationships in this kind of world very well.
You could probably pull out homages to a dozen different movies, with a scene reminiscent to Iron Giant‘s gentle being vs. weapon dynamic standing out to me.
There’s even a really clever joke in the middle of the movie that stipulates some Transformers may have been involved in the creation of the Internet.
If you like that kind of self-aware humor, you’ll enjoy Bumblebee.
On top of that, Bumblebee‘s more classic toy-like Autobot and Decepticon designs allowed for more flowing, understandable action scenes and empathetic moments than the mechanized madness of Michael Bay’s films.
It sounds like I don’t have too many complaints about Bumblebee — and to be honest, I don’t. Some of my major complaints are nitpicks, like the fact that Transformers spoke English humans could understand and knew our vehicle shapes before coming to Earth.
But those are symptoms of the original source material than they are this movie specifically, and don’t detract from the film.
The movie also plays fast and loose with its setting’s time and place until late into the movie (at least from the perspective of someone who hadn’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge in that promotional poster I used as my Featured Image).
On top of that, every plot beat is borderline eye-rollingly predictable because of how much it leans into common clichés. Though to be fair there are moments where the script takes a high ground and doesn’t lean on obviously foreshadowed deus ex machinas.
Frankly, Bumblebee’s biggest strength is just how fun it is. So much so that even if there are bigger concerns, I’ve completely overlooked them. As exhausted as I was with the overwhelming Michael Bay franchise by its second or third installment, I could watch many more movies using Travis Knight’s formula going forward.
Not only was it great for Transformophiles like Juan, who was giddy seeing at least six named characters he recognized within the first few seconds, it also worked wonders for people like me that simply enjoy well-crafted, goofy 80’s flicks.
There were only about five people in our theatre today so I don’t imagine the film will be out too much longer, but I’d recommend going to see it while you can. It’s definitely a ride worth taking.
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