Positioned as a prequel to the first film of the series, “Bumblebee” is the first good “Transformers” movie with no qualifiers, milking the charm of a small and intimate character-driven setup to deliver a fun, gradually escalating adventure that leans into the cartoony atmosphere of its source material rather than feel ashamed of it and ends on a note leaving the audience curious for more rather than exhausted with what they get.
Even the humble “kid and their first car/alien robot companion” hook seems to be handled as a direct response to what the series materialized as with what it should have been from the jump; mute, young Cybertronian scout Bumblebee watches over Earth awaiting orders from Optimus Prime when he befriends a budding young gearhead, Charlie Watson, whose world gets upturned when she’s embroiled in the Autobot/Decepticon conflict brought down to her quiet hometown of Brighton Falls when two Decepticons track Bumblebee’s location, tipping off the military to their alien presence in the process. It really is amazing just how well “Bumblebee” can be efficiently described as the first Michael Bay “Transformers,” but good.
Dario Marianelli’s score lacks the epic hook of Steve Jablonski’s, but actually suits what’s happening on screen rather than overselling a production hack job with an epic scope. Hailee Steinfeld brilliantly embodies a charming and endearing young woman undergoing legitimate emotional turmoil in her family life and portrays a far more likable lead than Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg combined, while her dorky co-lead friend\pseudo-love interest portrayed by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. refreshingly avoids the irritating geek guy slaves over the girl stereotype by simply acting like a human being where called for. The most cartoonish character of the movie is probably John Cena as the head of the military division chasing after the Cybertronians and even he knows where to cut loose and where to cut back to deliver some of the funniest lines of the movie.
All of the clear and concise work on the character side combined with a brisk sense of pacing actually make “Bumblebee” watchable in stark contrast to the rest of its associated franchise on the big screen this millennium but even on the technical side, director Travis Knight show’s that he’s no slouch in terms of vision. The character models are well designed and actually displays some truly stylish fight choreography that not only takes advantage of their ability to transform but are just well shot and satisfyingly edited.
The simplicity of the story essentially being “The Iron Giant” but with “Transformers” has allowed the cast and directors to really hone in on making the most out of the material rather than rely on special effect artists to run wild with little to no direction. However, the attempts to play that charm up can lead to more than a few moments of cringe comedy seemingly existing solely for the purposes of being cute that feel more than a little but out of character for a franchise that ostensibly positions itself as a multi-toned war story.
I could have done without a lot of the clumsy Bumblebee shenanigans that occur towards the middle of the film, which simply seem to distract from the growing feeling of how rudderless this franchise seems to currently be. Should the studio executives at Paramount have any sort of brains whatsoever, they’ll use this opportunity to soft reboot and rewrite the chaotic Michael Bay continuity into something far more charming in the vein of this movie. As it stands, it seems to want to build towards something grander but ultimately feels shackled to a legacy of 5 movies that range from mediocre to downright atrocious.
While these little quibbles of franchise framing at the corporate level are unlikely to bother anybody but people like me, I can’t deny that a lot of this movie’s impact on me both as a fan of cinema and “Transformers” is lost with its attempted synergy to be a part of something it seems smart enough to not want to directly associate with.
Corporate politics aside however, “Bumblebee” really is a lot of fun; a cute, endearing, simple but refreshing throwback to when blockbusters could just entertain without the machinations of future franchising placed at the forefront as opposed to the back burner and a real seasonal crowd pleaser you may find yourself enjoying even if you aren’t a huge fan of cinematic “Transformers” up to this point.
4 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.