It’s hard to adequately and clearly explain just how spectacularly Michael Bay f**ked the Transformers franchise up. Born out of his explosive hubris in 2007, he created five increasingly cacophonous, seizure-inducing insults to nostalgia and art that eschewed anything resembling character development or plotting. They were miserable slogs that made a kajillion dollars, relying on cheap racial stereotypes and sexist characterizations, incoherent storylines, and loud, action figure-smashing battles that were barely understandable. This is a franchise that cast Mark Wahlberg as a scientist, for Christ’s sake.
In 2014, when Transformers: Age of Extinction was released, I titled my review I Don’t Know How Much More of This I Can Take, and when last year’s abysmal The Last Knight appeared, I gave up even the sliver of hope I had for the franchise. So color me surprised when it was announced that the next film wouldn’t be a continuation of that vomit-spatter that Bay was calling a story, but instead a solo film focusing on fan-favorite Bumblebee. More interestingly, Bay would serve as an executive producer, but the directing would be handed over to Travis Knight, who directed the utterly marvelous Kubo and the Two Strings. Suddenly, I once again had hope for this franchise that was based on one of my childhood’s great loves.
Which brings us to today. I saw Bumblebee, the newest incarnation of the Transformers franchise, and it’s a completely different experience, so wondrously unrecognizable from Bay’s bombastic orgy of noise and lens flare that it’s hard to believe they have even the most tenuous relationship. Taking place in the 1980s, Bumblebee is a fascinating hybrid of nostalgic period piece, family character drama, and, well, a movie about giant battling robots that transform into vehicles. It focuses on the titular Bumblebee, escaping a doomed Cybertron and crashing into Earth with no voice and a damaged memory bank, scared and confused. His vehicle form, a bright yellow Volkswagon Beetle, ends up in the hands of young Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a glum teenager simultaneously dealing with the aftermath of her father’s death and her mother’s remarriage. She’s a gearhead who finds Bumblebee in a junkyard and is determined to put him back together when lo and behold, giant yellow robot.
Unfortunately, Bumblebee comes with his own dangers — there are two menacing Decepticons searching for him, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux). They force an alliance with a shady US military branch, led by a xenophobic, menacing John Cena. From there on, it’s both a story of the blossoming friendship between Charlie and Bumblebee, and a thrilling series of captures and escapes as they evade both human and robot enemies. The film features a number of familiar Decepticons shown in flashback (and yes, the great Peter Cullen returns to voice Optimus Prime), but it’s tightly focused on just those few characters. At first, it’s almost unsettling how similar this story is to the first Transformers movie, yet how unbelievably different its execution is. Bumblebee falling into the hands of a down-on-their-luck teen, a series of increasingly menacing Decepticons hunting them, an American military presence — it hits so many of the same notes as the 2007, Shia Labeouf-led original. Except that where the first was a hollow, noisy mess, Bumblebee is a film filled with heart and the kind of nostalgic joy that this franchise should have had all along.
That’s ultimately the real difference here. Bumblebee is fun, and funny, and sweet and charming. Steinfeld does great work as a rambunctious teen who is also battling some real traumas, but she also takes her friendship with Bumblebee seriously, treating him not as a ride, but as a companion. The women in the film, in general, are actual characters — Sally, her mom (Pamela Adlon), is a fully realized human, a working woman who lost her husband and remarried. But she remarried a good guy! A stable, sweet, caring — if somewhat socially awkward — guy who genuinely wants good things for her and her family, even if he has trouble relating to them. Charlie’s problem with her stepdad isn’t because he’s mean or abusive, it’s simply that he’s new and she can’t adapt.
Even more unusual is that Charlie’s friend, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg,Jr.) isn’t a love interest — he’s a new friend, but he’s just… there for her when she needs him. Sure, there’s a bit of a spark there, but it’s muted and subtle. And Memo, despite his best intentions, can’t save the day for the life of him, arriving late to every encounter or getting his ass kicked when he tries to do something heroic. He tries, though, and he’s a sweet and endearing character. This is a movie that gives a shit about its characters, treating them as the story, instead of using them to backfill the spots between action sequences.
Of course, the other difference is the setting and the design. The film leans hard into the ’80s nostalgia, steeping every frame in an intense attention to detail and minutiae. But it does so for the sake of accuracy, never resorting to lazy jokes about this part of our shared past. It’s just a really well designed period piece, not a parody. Equally important is the more classic design of the Transformers themselves, with a larger emphasis on their final forms instead of the exhaustively, ridiculously detailed transformation process. Perhaps most impressive — astonishing, really — are the facial effects for Bumblebee himself. He is remarkably expressive, a fully rendered personality playing out on his mute face, with wide, curious eyes and a face full of emotion and wonder.
I’m delighted to announce that I finally found a Transformers movie that I was willing to take my kid to. As an avid watcher of many of the myriad cartoon incarnations, it killed me to know that I would never show him the Bay films. He adored Bumblebee, laughing and gasping his way through it, climbing into my lap when he thought Bumblebee was in peril, but confident that he’d be OK in the end. Because Bumblebee isn’t another dark, grim ogre of a film. It’s a breezy, fun, smart picture directed by someone with a keen eye for details, but also for humanity. It succeeds in every way that its predecessors failed, conveniently serving as a soft reboot for the franchise and bringing it back to life.