For weeks now it’s been said by many critics and audiences that “BumbleBee” is the best “Transformers” movie since the 1986 animated film. “BumbleBee” restores the faith to the ones who have been critically unfair, to the 10 years Michael Bay spent as the maestro of the “Transformers” cinematic universe. Bay’s approach has its fans (especially me), but with “Bumblebee”, we finally get to see what a filmmaker other than Michael Bay (still serving as a producer) could do with the concept of the Hasbro toy-line.
“Bumblebee,” directed by Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings”), really is the best “Transformers” movie so far. Other than “Age Of Extinction” the 4th installment in the series and first for Mark Wahlberg, followed by the first film in the Shia LaBeouf trilogy. It takes only a few seconds into “Bumblebee” for fans of the G1 “Transformers” to go running up and down the aisles, as the opening minutes are the culmination of every hope and dream fan boys have had for these movies. It’s a Cybertron war with all your favorite and iconic “Transformers”, that look like the toys we all used to play with.
Cybertron, is a massive technological wonder where a civilization of sentient robots is in the middle of a brutal civil war. We find Optimus Prime (voiced, as always, by Peter Cullen) who sends a signal for his Autobot resistance and commands one of his soldiers B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to flee to Earth to prepare the planet to become the Autobots’ new base of operations. B-127 lands in the middle of a military exercise, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), which immediately turns into a robot hunt, as the poor alien races through the forest, desperately trying to evade capture. And just when it seems like he might be able to reason with these humans, a Decepticon called Blitzwing arrives, who blows everyone to hell and leaves our hero B-127 broken, his memory erased, and finding himself impersonating a beat up Volkswagen Beetle as a defense mechanism. In a storyline that could have come straight out of a “Herbie” sequel (if anyone needed a “Love Bug” film, Travis Knight should direct it). B-127 gets purchased by teenage mechanic Charlie Watson (one of my celebrity crushes Hailee Steinfeld), who’s still mourning the death of her father, even though her mother has remarried and her little brother has moved on. Always keeping to herself B-127 immediately becomes her new best friend. She renames him “BumbleBee”, they bond, they get into comic misadventures, she begins a mildly romantic friendship with her neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., “Love, Simon”), and eventually they all go on the run from two more Decepticons who have arrived on Earth.
Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) voice the Decepticon seekers Shatter and Dropkick, who have traced Bumblebee to Earth. These guys are no joke. Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson refuse to shy away from how evil the bad guys are. These Decepticons do unimaginably horrible things to your favorite Autobots, wait till you see how they treat humans.
“Bumblebee” is a 1980s genre film through and through. Christina Hodson (screenwriter of the unforgettable films “Unforgettable” and “Shut In”) embraces the familiar structure of every classic “magical friend” movie, like Spielberg’s “ET”. Knight indulges in nostalgic affection for all things 1980s, especially the era’s music and movies. “BumbleBee” is period correct down to eating the Mr. T cereal for breakfast.
Continuing his producing credit on the “Transformer” films. Steven Spielberg’s classic’s are a big influence on “BumbleBee”. It’s classic Amblin stuff, it’s adventurous, imaginative, very nostalgic, entertaining, engaging and even emotional as Knight has moved the series more into the Spielberg arena.
“BumbleBee’s” budget is the smallest of any of the films, at $ 128 million. “Transformers” (2007) was $150 million, “Revenge Of The Fallen” (2009) $200 million, “Dark Side of the Moon” (2011) $195, “Age of Extinction” (2014) $210 and “The Last Knight” (2017) a whopping $260 million. It’s amazing what Knight and his crew were able to do with such a smaller budget. The action sequences especially when it comes between two “Transformers” battling it out the VFX is so clean and we always know exactly what’s happening, because the film is skillfully constructed and edited. Fans will be especially happy that we get some extended battle sequences both on Cybertron and with rogue Decepticons. Knight’s background in animation influences everything in the beautifully orchestrated action scenes, he keeps the choreography simple. Everything looks as if it actually exists and functions in reality.
“BumbleBee” is given a welcome warmth and light touch, and possesses such an expressive face with his lively blue eyes. Even more impressive is Hailee Steinfeld’s heartfelt and touching performance. Steinfeld grounds “BumbleBee” beautifully, with a rich and specific performance that never once treats the bizarre sci-fi events with ironic detachment or cynicism. She picks up on her role from “Edge Of Seventeen”, as the outcast teen who adopts the wounded Autobot. She is an eighties New Wave fan, with a love for The Smiths (a band Bumblebee doesn’t care for in a fun gag), the role seems tailor made for her, and she’s by far the most likable human character we’ve seen in a “Transformers” movie. Knight and his effects team convincingly create an environment in which Steinfeld and her CG counterpart seem to be actually sharing the screen.
Between the emotion and the action there is comedy. As in a scene where “BumbleBee” is all alone in Charlie’s house, accidentally making an enormous mess and then making it even messier by trying to stop. It works because Knight films the sequence like a Charlie Chaplin silent comedy routine. There is other great bits of comedy along the way, that never gets cheesy or corny. The films soundtrack is a killer mixtape featuring Steve Winwood, Sammy Hagar, The Smith’s, Wang Chung and an original song by Hailee Steinfeld.
This Amblin/Spielberg-esque tale is less about a war between Autobots and Deceptions, even though that obviously plays a role. It is instead a story of a girl and her first car, her first love, and first steps into her future. “BumbleBee” is a prequel and origin story for its most lovable piece of heavy metal. If “Bumblebee” were the very first entry in the live-action franchise, it might seem small and derivative of an 80’s kids film. But as a new start for the series, scraping the previously complex mythology from the Bay films and starting over from scratch, “BumbleBee” is enormously effective. If this is where the new “Transformers” franchise is headed, then I say let the transformation continue. “BumbleBee” lives up to it’s hype and is a great movie, that gives the popular supporting character the spotlight he deserves. Unfortunately the film faces sizable competition from “Aquaman” this weekend. So if your reading this review I plead to you please go see “BumbleBee”, that has everything you’d want in a movie and skip “Aquaman” all together.
GRADE: ★★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★