WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
With the war between Decepticons and Autobots tilting very much in the favour of the former, Optimus Prime sends one of his scrappiest fighters, B-127, to Earth to find refuge for their group of righteous rebels but things don’t quite go as planned when B-127 gets severely damaged and is forced to transform indefinitely into a VW Beetle for self-preservation. The years is 1987 and when B-127 is discovered some months later by an alienated teenage girl named Charlie in a junkyard in her small, coastal hometown, the two form an unlikely friendship. It’s not long, however, before both the US Army and a pair of Decepticon scouts start closing in on Charlie and B-127 – or as Charlie has renamed him, Bumblebee.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I’m writing this review just half an hour after the credits rolled on the preview screening of Bumblebee that I attended and I’m at something of a loss for words. Down is up, left is right, cold is hot, and for all I know, cricket is exciting. I enjoyed a Transformers film. No, it’s more than that. I loved the ever loving bejeezus out of a Transformers film. Transformers: the series of films that have, for well over the past decade, exemplified the very worst of Hollywood excess. Transformers: the empty, cynical behemoth of a franchise where each instalment easily ranked among the very worst films of the years that they were released. That Transformers. Nothing makes sense any more.
Fortunately, all it takes is a quick look at the credits to return some semblance of normality to this mad, mad world – even if it’s still not quite enough to entirely shake the feeling of sheer wrongness for writing a gushing review about a Transformers film. After five (too many) instalments of director Michael Bay’s increasingly soulless, brainless and convoluted Transformers behemoths, Bay has stepped back into the producer’s chair (hopefully permanently) and allowed a new group of creators to take the helm and guide the franchise into a sunnier, more hopeful future.
Rather than trying to pick up where Bay left off in the Last Knight – honestly, who would want to – Bumblebee resurrects this ailing franchise with the least likely of things: a prequel. The genius of this particular prequel, though, is that it circumvents the exposition-heavy, connect-the-dots storytelling that plagued the Star Wars prequels and is making the Fantastic Beasts films a pale substitute for Harry Potter, by, in effect, not really being a prequel. Despite the return of the characters of Bumblebee and Optimus Prime (the latter once again voiced by Peter Cullen), this is an entirely fresh start for the franchise that may well be – or at least may as well be – entirely disconnected from Bay’s Transformers films.
Replacing Bay in the director’s chair is Travis Knight, an established stop-motion animator for Laika Studios and the freshman director of Laika’s exquisite Kubo and the Two Strings, who brings a sensibility to the film that is 180 degrees away from what Bay did with the franchise. Replacing the groups of writers that helped make previous Transformers films feel like they were written by a committee made up of members who never met each other, is a single writer, Christina Hodson, who has a scant two films to her name, neither of which were any good (Shut In and the ironically named Unforgettable) but has, with this film alone, established herself as a writer to look out for – which is just as well as she is handling the Batgirl and Birds of Prey films for DC/ Warners.
Knight and Hodson have done nothing less than completely and utterly overhauled a franchise that, terrifyingly, looked unstoppable in its original form. Throwing out the excessive running time, the bombast, the murky visuals, the clunky humour, the inappropriate sexual objectification/ sexiness (delete accordingly) of the female leads and the woefully inept storytelling of Bay’s Transformers, Knight and Hodson have turned out a film that is intimate in scale, restrained, tightly written, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, exciting and filled with more heart in five minutes than in all of Michael Bays movies combined.
One of the smartest things about Bumblebee is that Knight and Hodson haven’t just relocated the series to small-town America in the 1980s, they have entirely switched genres. It’s hard to pinpoint just what genre the previous Transformer movies belonged to (action/ sci-fi, in theory, depressingly ugly horror, in reality) but Bumblebee sits very comfortably as an old-fashioned girl-and-her-robot adventure movie that mixes cutting edge special effects with a properly old-fashioned, even nostalgic kind of storytelling that finally brings the franchise in line with executive producer, Stephen Spielberg’s, own oeuvre.
Sure, this does mean that the film is both seriously unoriginal (it really is super similar to the Iron Giant, for example) and it is gleefully cheesy but both of these only add to the film’s overall charm. And speaking of charm, Bumblebee, who has always been the only Transformer in past films to be particularly likeable is just flat out adorable here but is easily matched by Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld has always been a terrifically talented and engaging young actress is almost supernaturally delightful here, mixing spunky, outsider attitude with utterly effortless likability in a character that you can’t help but love about three second into her introduction as she groggily pulls herself out of bed to the sound of the Smiths’ Big Mouth Strikes Again.
And, yes, this being a film set in the ‘80s, it is filled wall-to-wall with killer ‘80s tunes – especially of the New Wave/New Romantic/ Alternative Rock persuasion. It continues modern pop culture’s obsession with the 1980s and, like the best throwbacks (see IT and Stranger Things), it really captures the feeling of the adventure movies of that period – as well as the general sound and look of the ‘80s in general, even if through decidedly nostalgic glasses.
I suppose I could criticise the film’s general on-the-nose nature or the fact that the more human moments easily outshine the Transformer-on-Transformer action scenes (which are handled with far more clarity and impact than Bay ever managed with his endlessly dull set pieces) but these are just nitpicks.
Bumblebee, with its fantastic characters and cast (there are some cool supporting players here too, including Pamela Adlon and John Cena), huge heart, fun eighties details and surprisingly sharp writing, is a truly delightful little film that would pair up nicely with that other Hailee Steinfeld movie that’s out right now as the perfect festive-season double-bill.