Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May
To say that Bumblebee is the best Transformers film to date is both fair and faint praise. The bar was low—very low. But like the DC universe before it, seems once the dead weight is dropped, a franchise is given new life and a breath of fresh, if familiar, air.
The film is the first release after Paramount and Hasbro finally realized things under Michael Bay were not working (duh?). They created a writers’ room to brainstorm ideas—which is great and all, though a Bumblebee solo film really seemed a non-brainer. Still, using other writers, and more importantly another director, frees the property to try new things; and the two best choices coming out of this first effort were hiring director Travis Knight and going smaller rather than exponentially bigger in scale.
Knight is an animator by trade, but with the massive critical and commercial success of his directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings, his star shot up and he became the most logical choice to bring actual character to the denizens of Cybertron. If you’ve seen Kubo, you know Knight understands how to mix the entire emotional gamut with rollicking adventure, and so he does in certainly the most heartfelt entry of the series. Going in hand, the fact that Bumblebee features only three main robots allows for an intimacy and closer examination of each than we’ve ever had before.
That being said, Bumblebee treads a lot of old ground, and feels very much the soft reboot it is apparently intended to be. As before, we explore a teenager’s relationship with her car while being hounded by alien foes, a shadowy U.S. government agency, and a set of kind but goofy parents. Oh, and of course the plucky sidekick. Not sure if you so much needed a writers’ room to come up with all that as much as just watching every TF thus far. So zero points for originality there.
But, we are mercifully spared certain other tropes. I can gleefully report that there is not one slow-mo rotating pan . . . no orgasmic shots of the army and their secret toys . . . and not one character pees on another. Like I said, the bar is low.
The humor is still very much there, but elevated out of the snickering adolescent vein and into a more organic, integrated, and mature sensibility, while still being quite silly at times. But it usually hits the right notes, landing the joke or gag at just the right beat and tone. The military, for its part, is in the background where it serves best, keeping them a menacing threat rather than serving as eye candy or recruitment ads.
Most importantly though, the characters—human and robot alike—feel like real people. Young Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teen on the cusp of adulthood, dealing with the tragic loss of her father while the rest of her family has seemingly moved on. She adds that to the struggle to find her self-confidence and happiness again, and so her journey feels both real and relatable. Screenwriter Christina Hodson expresses the tribulations of that world clearly and honestly, and connects the two lost souls in Charlie and Bumblebee in a sweet and believable way. Meanwhile, Steinfeld is able to use her natural likeability to balance and sweet sort of wholesomeness with Charlie’s punk rocker edge.