Several years ago, I wrote about the Transformers movie that broke me. Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t just a bad movie, it soured me on Transformers altogether. I was resigned to let the iconic toys and cartoons of my youth stay there in the past, and accepted that Michael Bay’s overindulgent vision for Transformers — awash in testosterone and jingoism — would never sync with my memories of the property.
Then I saw Bumblebee.
Travis Knight’s prequel to the original films captures everything I love about Transformers. In fact, from a visual and tonal perspective, the movie serves as more of a soft reboot than prequel. Gone are the overly complicated robot designs of the Bay films in exchange for the most G1-accurate Autobots and Decepticons you’ve ever seen in live action!
In a twitter thread I posted shortly after seeing a preview screening, I referred to the G1 aesthetic as “dope af.” The Bumblebee publicity department has since included that quote in an online marketing campaign, so please consider it the official NOC stance on the movie. LOL.
— Keith Chow (@the_real_chow) December 12, 2018
Granted, the movie’s devotion to the characters’ original designs was a given ever since the first trailers started dropping. That fact still did not prepare me for the movie’s extended prologue on Cybertron featuring instantly recognizable characters like Ratchet, Arcee, Starscream, Soundwave, and more. I could pick out a dozen Autobots and Decepticons instantly in less than 30 seconds of screen time! I even rolled a tear less than five minutes into the movie. Meanwhile, how many Transformers can you legitimately point out in a Michael Bay action sequence?
Like, what is even happening here?
By contrast, Bumblebee gives us action sequences that are not only comprehensible, they actually serve the story! An early fight between Bee and Blitzwing (yes, it’s Blitzwing in those trailers and not Starscream as previously thought) is not only a great set piece, it’s integral to the plot of the movie (and more importantly, lays the foundation for who Bumblebee is and will be in future installments).
It helps that the movie pares down the number of Transformers we see. Aside from brief glimpses of Cybertron, Bee is really the only Autobot. Shatter and Dropkick (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux, respectively) are the only Decepticons who play a role. This less-is-more approach allows the viewer to focus on Bumblebee’s origin and his relationship with Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld.
It is not controversial to state that Steinfeld is the best human protagonist in the history of the franchise (sorry, Shia and Marky Mark). Bumblebee is as much Charlie’s coming-of-age story as it is an origin for everyone’s favorite plucky Autobot. The movie also takes advantage of its ’80s setting to lean in to a common trope of the era’s cinematic language: a kid and her misfit alien/robot/car (or in this case, all three). It’s reminiscent of movies like E.T., The Iron Giant, Flight of the Navigator, et. al.
The trope works for Bumblebee because it brings a sense of innocence to the nostalgia at play. That is a testament to the brilliance of British Asian screenwriter Christina Hodson, whose next project is a little movie for WB called Birds of Prey, natch! Hodson, through Knight’s direction, brings a much needed sensibility to the Transformers franchise that turns away from the dudebro-ness of the Bay films. This feels like a family film of that era. I can’t emphasize how nice it was to watch a Transformers movie that didn’t have any gratuitous dick jokes or lusty camera pans of the female lead. Even Charlie’s relationship with Jorge Lendeborg’s blerdy neighbor Memo is cute and engaging. This is the first time I actually cared for the humans in these movies.
If I had one gripe with the movie, it would be the scenes featuring the military, which have become a staple of the franchise, I suppose. Not only did they seem comically inept, the acting in those scenes were a little too broad and didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story. It was like John Cena was acting in a completely different movie.
The same goes for the scenes featuring Charlie’s family. I love Pamela Adlon, but her scenes felt straight out of a sitcom (and not, like, a good one like Adlon’s own Better Things). Still, Charlie’s family is a far cry from the ridiculousness of the Witwickys. Their humor might be corny, but it’s never crude.
The only other complaint I have is the appearance of Bumblebee’s Camaro form. It’s a nice nod to fans of the Bay movies (do they exist?) but also felt totally unnecessary given that the rest of the movie barely acknowledges the other films in the franchise. I would have much preferred if they just committed to the idea of Bumblebee as a reboot so we could follow these characters into the future. Not to mention that we just got Bee as a VW Beetle for the first time in eleven years! Why couldn’t that form last for more than one movie?
There’s also a final cameo that I won’t spoil here that feels a little less special because Bumblebee is a Camaro and not a Beetle in the scene.
But those are all minor nitpicks. Bumblebee is the Transformers film I’ve always wanted. And if this is the direction they’re taking the franchise, I can’t wait to see what’s next!