I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m about to write this sentence, but here it goes anyway: Bumblebee is a delight.
It looks so weird! I’m just staring at that sentence and I can’t wrap my head around it! I just used the word “delight” in the same sentence as a new Transformers movie. What a world. But that’s where we are with Bumblebee, director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson’s kinder and gentler version of a Transformers movie. Or, maybe a better way to put it is, “a coherent and crass-less version of a Transformers movie.”
The first five minutes of Bumblebee made me cheer and applaud more than any five-minute sequence in a would-be blockbuster movie this year. These first five minutes are basically Transformers porn for anyone who has ever wanted to see the mid-80s, Generation One version of the Transformers on a movie theater screen. The trailer showed us a few glimpses of this with the old school looking Soundwave, on Cybertron, ejecting his cassette tape attack dog, Ravage, against the Autobots (yep, that familiar Soundwave voice is there) but, oh, there’s sooooo much more. It’s an entire cavalcade of Autobots and Decepticons the way we saw them in the original More Than Meets The Eye animated series. (Honestly, part of me wants to call this “fan service,” because it certainly does service longtime fans. But is just “presenting characters as they were originally intended” fan service? I’ve decided I’m for it. But, whatever, this is only the first five minutes of the movie.)
Optimus Prime orders Bumblebee to flee Cybertron and look for a safe hiding place so the Autobots can all rendezvous later. And, yes, this planet happens to be Earth, circa 1987. Boy, I hope you like ‘80s music, because you’re going to get a a lot of ‘80s music. The good news is, other than some obligatory a-Ha, these aren’t the ‘80s songs we always hear in movies set during the 1980s. (At least, I certainly don’t remember hearing Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” anytime recently.)
Bumblebee is gravely injured, and unable to speak, after fighting both the U.S. military and a Decepticon who tracked him to Earth, so he disguises himself as a Volkswagen Beetle (another reference to the original series) in an old junkyard. This is where social outcast Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) spends a lot of her time, looking for spare parts. Her and Bumblebee meet and, before we know it, the two (along with her neighbor, Memo, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) are cruising down the highway listening to Tears for Fears.
At its essence, Bumblee is about finding one’s purpose and voice (for Bumblebee, this is literal). Charlie hasn’t connected with other human beings since the death of her father. Her mother (Pamela Adlon) has even remarried, but Charlie hasn’t adjusted. Meanwhile, Memo is a nerd who doesn’t have any friends (at least any that we see, other than maybe his pretty stellar collection of DC Super Powers and Marvel Secret Wars action figures). And Bumblebee is an alien trapped alone on Earth who everyone wants to kill. Together, they just kind of make their way in this crazy world (while listening to Duran Duran).
Look, I actually kind of like Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie. It’s just that the sequels kept getting louder and less coherent – and by the fifth one they were all somehow involved with King Arthur and people finally seemed to agree that enough was enough and stopped showing up like they used to.
So now we get Bumblebee, this scaled down version of Transformers that focuses on characters instead of chaos. For 90 percent of the movie there are only three Transformers involved in the plot. Besides Bumblebee, there are only the two Decepticons tracking him, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux). These two trick the U.S. military into helping them track down Bumblebee (the idea being if the U.S. doesn’t agree to help them, maybe these Decepticons take their technology to the Soviet Union (remember, this is the 80s.)
The only disappointment is John Cena’s military character, Jack Burns. For whatever reason, the film barely taps into Cena’s talent for comedy, while also his character is a bit all over the place. At one point he seems like a good guy, then in the next scene he’s not, then he is again. It almost feels like Cena is trying to service two separate characters at once. See, look at that, there’s so much charm in Bumblebee I’m actually sitting here breaking down character traits as if this wasn’t a Transformers movie. I’ll stop now.
So here we are, in 2018, and there’s a new Transformers movie that is coherent and has a lot of heart – and a Transformers movie in which I found myself thinking over and over, “I can’t believe I like this.” The people who (like me) have been waiting to see the original Transformer designs in a movie, we’ll you’re going to be thrilled. The people (like me) who just want a Transformers movie to make somewhat sense, you are also in luck. It’s worth repeating one more time: Bumblebee is a total delight.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.