Bumblebee movie review: The best Transformers movie in over a decade
Director - Travis Knight
Cast - Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, John Ortiz, Pamela Adlon
Rating - 3.5/5
To call Bumblebee the best movie in the Transformers series wouldn’t be a stretch. But it would be damning with faint praise - like saying that Baby is the best Justin Bieber song, or that frying is the best way to cook a horse’s intestines.
For over a decade, the metal monsters have clashed and clanged on the big screen for our enjoyment, to decidedly diminishing returns and set to an increasingly ‘leery, laddish’ tone, as critic Mark Kermode describes it. And along comes Bumblebee, a spin-off with the heart of a Miyazaki movie and the innocence of a bygone era, just about tolerable enough for you to not actively dislike it.
Not only will it be nostalgic for the children of the ‘80s - a decade that is currently experiencing a cinematic resurgence - but it also holds an unmistakable fondness in its heart for the first Transformers movie, which was instrumental in breeding a whole new generation of fans.
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For all his faults - and there are so many - director Michael Bay’s original Transformers film remains my favourite movie of the lot; a loud, emotional adventure with stunning action and a terrific central performance by Shia LaBeouf. Even the most annoying of Bay’s tendencies - rancid humour, cringeworthy product placement, lurid visuals - were ignored. There can be no defence, however, of his terrible follow-ups, which hit rock bottom in 2017 - exactly a decade after the first film - with the almost unwatchable Transformers: The Last Knight.
For years, Bay has adamantly refused to relinquish his throne as the overlord of the Transformers universe. Until now. When his last film suffered the only sort of blow that is considered irrecoverable in the movie business - a poor showing at the box office - Bay was forced to vacate his position. No longer bound to his immature vision, Paramount hired the unlikely Travis Knight to direct the first in a planned series of spin-offs, intended to distance the future of the franchise from its past.
Knight’s affection for the world of the Transformers - particularly for the toys that he grew up playing with - is palpable in his film. Certainly, it hits many of the same marks as Bay’s first movie - it could even be argued that Bumblebee is a better thought-out remake - but crucially, has an entirely different tone. A misfit teenager does stumble across a ramshackle, unwanted car; villains arrive on Earth like meteors from outer space; and cartoonish government agents chase everyone around - but on no occasion does someone get peed on, and there is not a single masturbation joke in sight.
The Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie Watson, a 17-year-old (going on 18) still in mourning for her dead father, and unable to accept just how quickly her mother (Pamela Adlon) has moved on. She’d much rather spend her time tinkering in the scrapyard, listening to The Smiths, than learning to smile from a guidebook gifted to her by her mother’s new partner.
On one of her many afternoons in the junkyard - Charlie spends her summer days working at the amusement park, frying corndogs - she notices a rusty Volkswagen Beetle, hidden under a dusty tarp. The connection, as it will be in the future with Sam Witwicky, is instant.
The car is, of course, everyone’s favourite Transformer, Bumblebee - which Charlie discovers rather quickly. This was a welcome move, on screenwriter Christina Hodson’s part - none of that needless messing about, playing hide and seek with Bee’s disguise, when we all know that Charlie would eventually have to discover her car’s true identity for the plot to proceed.
In the film’s opening scene - unfortunately reminiscent of the older Transformers movies - Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobot resistance, sends Bumblebee to Earth, as a scout for what could possibly be their temporary new home. Upon Bee’s arrival, he is ambushed by stray military men, lead by John Cena’s character, and in the ensuing fight loses his voice.
Unlike Bay’s movies, which looked at the Transformers as aliens, Knight’s film sees them mostly as animals caught in a turf war, with the metallic cityscapes of Cybertron serving as their jungle.
The Decepticons are predators, and the Autobots noble elephants, perhaps. Bumblebee is merely a lost puppy, caught in the middle of a battle that he can’t quite comprehend - at least not yet. This is reflected in some of the dialogue - ‘Why did you bring it inside the house?’ asks Charlie’s mother; ‘If they make one wrong move we put them down,’ commands Cena’s villain later on.
The friendship that Charlie forms with Bumblebee, thanks mostly to Steinfeld’s strong performance and Knight’s novel characterisation of Bee, is easily the best thing about his movie. While it isn’t as adorable as the brotherly love that Sam shared with Bee in the first Transformers movie, it certainly isn’t as ineffectual as the relationship Bee had with Mark Wahlberg’s character in the last couple of films. They had all the chemistry of two clashing strangers trapped next to each other on a long flight.
But warmth is the emotion most synonymous with Knight’s films. Through his studio, Laika, Knight has produced some of the finest artisanal animated films of recent times. Besides not ruffling too many feathers, and retaining the DNA of what made Bay’s movies so popular - he even ends it with one of those insufferable long drawn-out action scenes - Knight spends a great amount of time developing his characters, two outsiders who find comfort in each other’s company.
For a series that was on the verge of being dismantled and sold for scraps, much like Bumblebee, it has found a saviour. Knight has lived up to his name. The Transformers can wear his shiny armour.