There’s a surprising amount at stake in this latest addition to the Transformers series, a film franchise defined by sub-standard storytelling rewarded with staggering box office receipts. It stands as the first film not directed by Michael Bay, having left the franchise with Transformers: The Last Knight. It serves as the live-action debut of Travis Knight, late of the promising Kubo and The Two Strings. More than anything though it represents Paramount’s willingness to try a new approach with a lucrative franchise. Perhaps to narrowly dodge the risk of fatigue among audiences and add critical acclaim to its commercial success.
Did they succeed? Yes, albeit incrementally. Far from the radical reboot of the franchise that critics might be hoping for Bumblebee is more of a minor needle shift. Toning down the franchise’s worst tendencies and allow a more genuine, heartfelt tone. It’s still executed with clumsy writing, over-complicated design and obnoxious scoring but these feel like minor missteps rather than cynical pandering.
The result is something more akin to Steven Spielberg’s original vision of a film focused on ‘a boy (or rather girl) and his car’, even taking on the Speilbergian setting of 1980s California; with all its denim playsuits, LED displays and Smiths tracks. This time our lead is Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie; a mechanics-loving kid, desperate for a car on her eighteenth birthday. Finding a broken-down yellow Beetle in her uncle’s scrap-shop, only to learn that it’s Bumblebee. Crash-landed on Earth after escaping war-torn Cybertron as seen in an epic laser-battle prologue…which is then followed by a second slightly-less epic action prologue solely to introduce John Cena (See what I mean about the clumsy writing).
But once the focus is solely on Bumblebee and Charlie, that’s where the film hits its stride. Pitched as a sort of E.T. remake by way of Christine, Charlie is able to bond with ‘Bee’ over their mutual affection for 70s and 80s ephemera. For Charlie these relics represent her last connection to her late father, while for Bumblebee, the youngest of the Autobots, they are an outlet for his childish nature. At least one that don’t involve kicking Decepticon’s heads like footballs. Together they form a relationship that’s more John Hugh’s than Michael Bay and the film is richer for it.
It’s far from perfect mind, mostly because the writing on Charlie veers wildly; from obnoxiously berating her Mom to being emotionally vulnerable over multiple issues. As if the script team couldn’t decide what her character arc should be and instead went with all of them. With multiple adversities to overcome none of her emotional beats are allowed the time to resonate. Indeed, the only thing about her character that feels genuine is her care for Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s performance gives it genuine emotional weight.
Of all people though Cena turns out to be the film’s comedic MVP as Lieutenant Jack Burns. A parody of a gun-cocking, authoritarian military hero from some lesser Reagan-Era action film played hilariously straight at every turn. Trainwreck already proved that Cena could do comedy and here he easily gets the biggest laughs of the film. As an added bonus Knight, prologue redundancy aside, is smart enough to use him sparingly; facilitating the plot and never overshadowing Charlie and Bee’s story.
Sadly, though all Transformers films must reach a generic climax and it’s here that old habits die hard. Pitching Bumblebee into a motion-blurring fight against minor Decepticons; Shatter and Dropkick, voiced with spine-chilling menace by Angela Basset and Justin Theroux. All while Charlie tries to stumble ahead of the chaos like a Crash Bandicoot sequence. It’s sad to watch such a promising film reduce itself to rereading old territory but the whole sequence feels half-heartedly put together. As if the film knew it needed a big action set piece that also resolved Charlie’s emotional baggage that also needed to be scored loudly enough to drown out any witty lines or emotional beats.
Bumblebee is far from the trainwreck of previous Transformers instalments. Its heart is in the right place, Cena and Steinfeld nail their respective roles and giving the Transformers a Generation 1 design is clearly the right approach. In fact, the CGI animations and effects in general remain the consistent high-point of franchise. Now, complimented by a simple, stripped-down story, with charming characters and tone they manage to elevate it to something approaching greatness. It’s not there yet but it leaves you keen to see where it’s going.