Let’s get this out of the way real quick, this is the best film in the Transformer cinematic series thus far. Granted, that isn’t saying much that seeing that the franchise under Bay’s direction has quickly deteriorated in quality and eventually, of all entertainment value. But we ain’t here to roast his ass anymore. No, we’re here to talk about the Bumblebee by director Travis Knight. In my humble opinion, this change of guard sanctioned by Paramount Studios is a great decision. The man is responsible for some of the best stop-motion animated films out there, his most prominent being Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. This, however, is the man’s first foray into blockbuster territory with CGI and practical effects. Let’s see how well Knight fared under these new conditions.
Don’t let the marketing fool you, Bumblebee isn’t so much a prequel to 2007’s Transformers than it is a secret reboot of the franchise. The film opens up with already a superior action set piece to any we’ve seen in previous films. In lieu of lengthy exposition by senior Transformer voice actor Peter Cullen about the epic war on Cybertron, we actually get to see it! First thing I noticed was how different the Autobots and Decepticons looked in these flashbacks. They seemed to have dropped the ultra-elaborate and frankly cluttered design of their other cinematic depictions for a faithful G-1 recreation of the characters. I’ll admit that I did embarrass myself in the cinema when I exclaimed a little too loudly, “They’re blocky just like my old toys!” This is a welcome change because now I can actually tell them apart.
The plot of the film follows the titular Autobot B-172 who is later rechristened as Bumblebee. After the fall of Cybertron, B-172 is commissioned by good guy resistance leader, Optimus Prime to establish a base for the Autobots on planet Earth. His entry into Earth, however, is taken less as a mission of peace than an invasion by angry military man Jack Burns played by John Cena. Along the way, he gets attacked by two Decepticons, which leaves him with voiceless and with a damaged memory core. He takes the shape of a yellow Beetle in an effort to blend in with the locals. He soon discovers a whole new world of friendship, The Smiths and pranks when he pretty much gets adopted by an 80’s caricature of a misunderstood tomboy teenage girl named Charlie Watson. Charlie and Bee begin to bond over how misunderstood they are (sooo 80’s) and will embark on a quest to stop the Decepticons from invading Earth.
Does this sound familiar? It’s clear to see that Bumblebee draws inspiration from films E.T. and Iron Giant. From the human protagonist’s coming-of-age story of finding his/her place in the world to the visitor from beyond the stars right down to American military men with their throbbing xenophobic boners for aliens. It’s not terribly original but for a first attempt by Knight, it certainly works. It’s a safe and comfortable premise that Travis can easily knock out of the park, and he does for the most part.
Knight rightly places Bumblebee at the centre of multiple subplots, doing away with previous films’ game of “find the MacGuffin”. Because believe it or not, the previous films were bloody convoluted with elements like All-Sparks, Matrix of Leadership and Arthurian heirs. Here, however, the source and solution to the conflict is clear. Military men want Bumblebee because they are scared of him. Decepticons want him because they hate Autobots and he has information to Optimus Prime. Charlie wants Bumblebee because she loves him Simple and straight to the point. So even when the film does dip into some of the less interesting subplots, I still know where it all leads to, Bumblebee.
Speaking of Bumblebee, this is the most developed version of the character I’ve seen so far on the big screen. At the beginning of the film on Cybertron, we really get a sense of Bumblebee’s personality. He’s a young, cocky warrior, voiced by Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien, battling beside his mentor and friend Optimus Prime. Before he became muted, he was a confident and capable soldier but after getting injured in a fight against the Decepticons, he pretty much becomes a curious little boy with brain damage or at least a really smart pet.
His naivete and playful nature is the source for most the comedic moments, a lot of them playing off his size, curiosity or robotic traits. There were times when we did get to see him struggle to reconcile his past as battle-hardened warrior with his newfound innocence. That I feel could have had potential for a strong character arc if developed a little more but hey, what we get here is still pretty fun if albeit predictable.
Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson was for the most part charming. Knight knows his demographic and plays to them by appealing to our nostalgic sense of the misunderstood tomboy. That being said, it works. There’s a clear, if not a compelling correlation between her attitude and her actions. She struggles to connect to her family with her new stepdad because she feels that by do, she would be betraying her dead dad. That distant and reclusive disposition is juxtaposed to the way she opens up to Bumblebee because she sees in a kindred spirit in him. It’s perfectly fine to have characters acting like teenagers as long as there are proper character motivations. Though at times their relationship can feel a little rushed, the chemistry between the two cannot be denied. The rest of the cast here, however, is mostly forgettable.
John Cena’s role as an action military man is functional. He’s a pretty paper-thin character with all the usual trappings that come with the stereotype. He is slightly smarter than the rest, I’ll give him that. His distrust of the Decepticons is warranted, pointing out the fact their names already sound pretty ominous. There’s the potential love interest Memo played Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and much like Cen,a he’s serviceable though he’s not as charismatic as the man. Don’t look to the Transformers here for any Serkis-level performances. Besides Bumblebee, the rest here are as bland as they come. I can’t even remember the two Decepticons chasing Bumblebee but hey at least they’re aren’t being racist so that’s a plus.
For those coming to Bumblebee, expecting to see some full out gratuitous robo-violence or metal-on-metal gore porn, you may be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely a good number of fight sequences in here and mind you they are a mark improvement over their predecessors. For the majority of the film though, it’s centred around Charlie and Bee’s relationship. Knight has also fixed the curse of the cluttered screen, finally, there’s a sense of fluidity AND clarity to the action. Praise Primus, I can see! The definite highlights in Bumblebee are the brief moments we get on Cybertron, witnessing these robo-warriors do battle in all their glory. I wouldn’t mind paying to see more of that, if Knight is up for making another one.
If I could describe Bumblebee in one word it would be lasagna. Everything about this film is just so cheesy from its homage to the old school Transformers cartoons to the Iron Giant relationship between Charlie and Bee to those genuine feel good moments peppered throughout the film. I never thought I say this but this is a Transformers film I would happily bring my kid to see. Bland villains and predictable narrative structure aside, Bumblebee is at the heart of it a family film and much like the aforementioned dish will leave you all with a warm, fulfilled feeling inside.
Travis Knight's Bumblebee might not exactly be the triumph critics and fans are hailing it to be but it is a welcome course correction for the Transformers film franchise. With plenty of heart, visual spectacle and gripping performances by the film's two leads, Bumblebee is sure to leave a smile on most people's faces.