Bumblebee is, hands down, the sweetest and most touching entry in the Transformers franchise. Hard to believe, but somehow the sixth movie of the series is the one that figured how to make both the people and the robots from space seem more believable. Oh, and a special bonus, the action scenes are staged in a way so you can tell what is going on.
The Transformers movies tend to be interchangeable: the plots unwieldy and the action overwhelming. While I enjoyed the first, the second entry, Revenge of the Fallen, left such a bad taste in my mouth that I swore off the series. But then I was assigned The Last Knight, which was less a movie-going experience and more an exercise in my wife and I practicing coping mechanisms in public.
Travis Knight seems to have made Bumblebee for people who loved Transformers as a child but not as an adult. Still, in Michael Bay’s defense, the Transformers franchise is based on a cartoon made to sell already existing toys. Storytelling and characterization was never really a priority for either iteration. Which is why Bumblebee is such a breath of fresh air. Knight understands the Transformers are inherently commercial, serve no real purpose, and have no real emotional weight. The characters we loved as children were not so much characters as excuses to slap a name on a package so we’d bug our parents to buy it. Still, that’s no reason why they can’t have motivations, flaws, desires, and goals. Knight takes Transformers no less seriously than did Bay, he just does it differently.
He does so by making Bumblebee the most eighties movies not made in the eighties. It’s a coming of age tale with a dash of a story about a girl and her dog. Well, in this case, replace the dog with a giant yellow alien robot refugee of a planetary civil war.
The script by Christina Hodson frames the origin story of Bumblebee not as an origin story but as a story in its own right. It is a decision that frees her from any and all obligations to set things up and instead allows her to explore relationships. She strips the Transformers mythos bare and just focuses on teen angst and survivor trauma without belittling either.
Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) as the Autobots flee their homeworld of Cybertron. He is tasked with scouting the planet, defending the planet from Decepticons, and setting up a base and giving the all clear for the other Autobots.
The bare bones approach allows for moments of real, almost visceral violence. Nothing disturbing or traumatizing, it’s a PG-13 movie after all. But after getting into a fight with a Decepticon shortly after arriving on Earth, Bumblebee has his vocal cords ripped out during an interrogation scene. He’s a robot so there’s no blood or engine oil just some electrical sparks and crackling. But the moment is impactful because in the short span of time that we’ve known Bumblebee, Knight and Hodson have made us care for him.
It’s a wonder what having a character with a clear goal and designing him with a face that’s capable of expressing emotions will do for audience empathy. I should mention that the character design for the new Transformers is, quite frankly, beautiful. The color scheme for the varying Transformers is eye-catching and distinctive. It keeps the screen from being too visually cluttered and confusing when you have more than one Transformer talking.
Before he passes out, Bumblebee transforms into a VW Beetle. Which is where our heroine Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), finds him. A moody loner who obsesses over the Smiths, she hangs out at the junkyard searching for parts to rebuild the old Camaro in her garage. The Camaro is less a car and more a stand-in for the memory of her recently deceased father.
Hailee Steinfeld is proving adept at playing teenagers that resemble actual teenagers, no matter the decade, or her actual age. She has a moodiness and selfishness about her that makes you want to strangle her if only because of how she reminds us of ourselves.
Steinfeld brings that same sort of grounded relatability to her Charlie. A grieving teenage girl trying to move on from her father’s death and conquer her newfound fear, once a champion high diver, she now finds herself terrified of heights. If that wasn’t bad enough she has a crush on the most popular kid in school.
As in most Transformers movies, the plot isn’t the thing, but here Knight and Hodson have made character king. Charlie and Bumblebee’s relationships are the age-old cliche of grieving girl meets traumatized torture survivor intergalactic robot finding each other and learning they’re really not so different after all.
But it works! Sweet jumping Jehoshaphat does it work. It works because the people Charlie interacts resemble actual people and not warped cartoon versions being humiliated by CGI effects.
Early on, Charlie has an exchange with the old man who owns the junk yard, played by the great character actor Len Cariou. She barges into his office, “I’ll make you a deal. That yellow bug in the yard. If I put the key in and it starts it’s mine.” “That’s not a deal. That’s you taking my car.”
Or take the relationship between Charlie and her mom Sally (Pamela Adlon). Sally is a nurse and has gotten remarried to Ron (Stephen Schneider). Charlie views this a betrayal to her father, understandable for a teen. That Hodson uses a giant transforming yellow robot to help heal the rift in their relationship is glorious.
Hodson adds a sublime sort of FU to years of humiliating sexism dealt by the franchise. Numerous times male characters are seen stripping or taking their shirt off for no reason. Understand though that these incidents, while clearly for the female gaze, are never mean, or overtly sexualized.
Heck one of the boys, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), has a crush of his own on Charlie. He accidentally discovers the truth about Bumblebee and they grow closer as friends. Taking him into her confidence, Charlie begins to grow fond of the boy.
At one point Charlie and Memo are driving Bumblebee down a deserted road. Charlie decides to show off. She asks for Memo’s shirt and he reluctantly gives it to her. She blindfolds herself with it and stands up through the sunroof. The shirt flies off and Memo is forced to spend the rest of the scene shirtless.
It’s ridiculously contrived. But compared to the way the women of the franchise were treated—some of whom were lingerie models cast as characters, and specifically cast because they would look good in lingerie—the boys get off easy. The moments are a far cry from how the women, in previous films, were treated as less human than even the robots.
I cannot stress enough just how sumptuously gorgeous Bumblebee looks and feels. Enrique Chediak bathes the frames in soft, warm hues. Even the action pops because Knight and Chediak find ways to make the action visually interesting and dynamic. Such as the shot when Charlie jumps out of Bumblebee the car mere seconds before he transforms into a robot. At one point Bumblebee, during a fight, transforms into the VW to drive up a wall only to transform again in mid-air to land a punch.
All these moments are brief, but they illustrate that action done well is on par with ballet. Knight and Chadian choreograph the action scenes with the boundless imagination of a child.
The scene where Charlie, Memo, and Bumblebee outrun a police car leaps to mind. He morphs halfway out of the car while squishing Charlie and Memo together to squeeze past oncoming traffic. Action scenes are a dime a dozen. But rare are the action scenes as delightful and kinetic as the one’s Knight and his team have assembled.
Bumblebee is a movie with a great big sympathetic heart. Stylish as it is full of sheer fun, Bumblebee doesn’t transform the franchise. It merely shows another way to go about it. No less confident and playful, Bumblebee is among many things, a welcome change of pace.