It may seem something of an oxymoron, but “Bumblebee” is a genuinely good “Transformers” film. Now, I’m happy to admit I’m heavily biased, having grown up loving and watching and reading the Gen 1 toys, cartoon and Marvel comic series but my tinted glasses just make the rosy nostalgia of “Bumblebee” even rosier.
With the war on Cybertron all but lost, Optimus Prime dispatches B-127 to Earth to set up a base for the Autobots to regroup and plan their fight back. Pursued by Blitzwing, Bumblebee manages to defeat the Decepticon but not before his voice box is destroyed and, succumbing to his injuries, he transforms into a 1967 Volkswagen beetle before entering stasis. Years later, when Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is given the junked beetle as a birthday present, she awakens B-127 and nicknames him Bumblebee. But with his reactivation comes renewed attention, from Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick and also from Sector 7 Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) who has been hunting Bumblebee since being caught up in the Autobot’s arrival and battle with Blitzwing.
The character design of the Transformers in “Bumblebee” is a stern rebuke to Michael Bay’s barely credible claim that the Transformers as envisioned couldn’t be made to look real on screen, justifying his tin-foil-and-wine-glass-in-a-blender aesthetic. Here, though, all your favourites are rendered in cartoon-accurate ‘live action’ glory, although Megatron is conspicuous by his absence. Optimus, Ratchet, Cliffjumper, Arcee, Soundwave, Ravage and even Shockwave are instantly, iconically recognisable and the whole opening Cyberton sequence feels like it’s a glorious upscaling of the classic 1986 “Transformers: The Movie”. Even the way the Autobots and Decepticons transform looks and feels, if not exactly toy accurate, then toy respectful and director Travis Knight uses this space between the mechanics to offer us an assortment of innovative and interesting viewpoints.
The less spindly and more distinctive and colourful designs mean that when we get to the rock ‘em sock ‘em robot smackdowns, you can see what’s going on and, crucially, who’s doing what to whom.
As well as setting itself in the Eighties and peppering in nods to the franchise’s storied history, there’s a distinctly Eighties movie feel to the movie’s structure and storytelling, evoking memories of “Batteries Not Included”, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Short Circuit” alongside its more obvious thematic debt to “The Iron Giant”
Depending on the audience reaction, the film will work as a prequel or, fingers crossed, a reboot which will allow the Transformers franchise to build on from here rather than dovetail at some point into Michael Bay’s misogynist mechanalia. The most striking break with the franchise so far is in “Bumblebee” actualising its leading lady instead of sexualising her. Steinfeld is superb as the wounded loner, nursing the hurt of her father’s death and resentment of her family having moved on. The family arc is well served by the script, as is a very modern take on the coming of age romance with Charlie neighbour and co-worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) but a side plot about a group of mean girls who pick on Charlie doesn’t really go anywhere. John Cena continues to impress and is clearly now just waiting for a breakout leading role to really ‘make’ him He’s a franchise star in waiting and poised to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
“Bumblebee” is a family-focused, fan-friendly knockabout action adventure which recharges the batteries and polishes the chrome of a run-down and tarnished franchise. For Travis Knight, it’s a triumphant live-action directorial debut and it’s clear we can expect fantastic things from him in the future.