I’m going to admit something: I really, really enjoyed the first ‘Transformers’ (2007). It was loud, it was brash and it was ridiculous (which boils down to, it was a Michael Bay movie), but it was spectacle on a mammoth scale, and the sub-par screenplay disappeared under the thunderous kinetics of Bay’s extraordinary visuals (I still think about that tracking shot of Optimus Prime and Megatron going through a building). From there on though, I have no qualms naming its sequels amongst the most stupid and offensive major Hollywood films of the last decade, with each successive entry somehow managing to be worse than the last.
[Side note: if you want the most eloquent proof of this, please do yourself a favour and read Jake’s review of ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ (2017). I think it might be the best review any of us at SWITCH have ever written. It’s magnificent. One day I want to perform it as a spoken-word piece.]
So, you would be forgiven for being side-eye suspicious about ‘Bumblebee’, the first spin-off/prequel to the main series, focusing on the fan-favourite yellow Transformer (probably a favourite because he doesn’t say anything and thus can’t say anything stupid). However, 2018 has been a year of surprises (like ‘Game Night’ being wonderful and ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ being unwatchable), so it makes a degree of cosmic sense that ‘Bumblebee’ turns out to be pretty good! I mean, the bar in this series was pretty low, but at least it’s an improvement for a change.
Set in 1987, ‘Bumblebee’ leaves behind the action histrionics and adopts a heartfelt buddy movie structure, borrowing from films like ‘ET’. After landing on earth in an attempt to escape the Deceptacons, Bumblebee is taken in by teenager Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’), who fixes him up and hides him in her family home. When two Deceptacons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) track him down, as well as government agent Burns (John Cena, ‘Blockers’), Bumblebee has to protect himself, Charlie and the planet he now calls home.
If this sounds far too sweet a premise for a 'Transformers' movie, you’d be right (if it also sounds very close to the premise of the first 'Transformers' movie, you would also be right, but let’s not get too judgemental). The wonderful surprise is that the film actually delivers on that promise; ‘Bumblebee’ is brimming with sincerity and heart. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (A woman?! Writing a 'Transformers' movie?!) wisely devotes a significant amount of time developing Charlie’s backstory and the development of her relationship with Bumblebee, so that the relationship between the two really does become the centre of the film itself. This is well-complimented by director Travis Knight (A 'Transformers' movie not directed by Michael Bay?!), whose previous work as an animator with Laika and as director of the gorgeous ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’ clearly honed an eye for quiet and detailed character development. That’s not to say that the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee is anything special – it’s still safe and cliché and obvious – but it’s a big step into unexpected territory for the franchise, and Knight’s handling of this relationship is strong. Also, we get a female protagonist (and a driven, resourceful one who's good with cars at that) rather than a brooding lump of dumb man meat blundering around and looking confused, which is a goddamn blessing (A woman with agency? In a 'Transformers' movie?!)
It’s everything outside of this central relationship though that lets the film down. The narrative around Agent Burns is a mess, a persistent threat that the mind-numbing stupidity of the main franchise is still hiding in the wings and threatening to jump out, and Knight’s handing of the action sequences, while nowhere near as obnoxious as Bay’s, also lack his theatricality, making them meek by comparison. So much of ‘Bumblebee’ feels like colour-by-numbers, which is only exacerbated when compared to the ways that it isn’t. The action fight sequences between giant robots feel out of place here, like they belong to another movie. This is a friendship film between a girl and her friend from outer space, and the epic noise of the main franchise doesn’t feel like it has as much of a place here. If Knight had been more ambitious, perhaps it could have made it something special. Unfortunately, it’s mostly forgettable.
That’s not to say that the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee is anything special – it’s still safe and cliché and obvious – but it’s a big step in unexpected territory for the franchise...
But big kudos to Hodson and Knight – at least this is the first 'Transformers' film that doesn’t flirt with (or outright indulge in) sexist, racist or homophobic storytelling. There has always been a sense that the 'Transformers' films were directed at hormone-fuelled teenage boys, just adding to their obnoxiousness, but perhaps the presence of a female protagonist, or a female screenwriter, or a director who so far as made two films about strong young women, has helped shift the franchise away from such problematic tendencies. Hell, in this one, it’s the guys getting their shirts off, with barely a bikini or pair of hot pants in sight! That might seem like a small thing, but in the 'Transformers' universe, that’s practically a reboot.
Hailee Steinfeld proved long ago that she’s perfectly capable of carrying a movie, and does the same here. She’s got the smarts to make the character of Charlie work, and to convincingly build a relationship with a giant yellow robot. In fact, that are some genuinely moving moments between the two characters, the animation responding beautifully to the sincerity of Steinfeld’s performance. There’s also lovely work from Jorge Lendeborg Jr (‘Love, Simon’) as Charlie’s love interest Memo, who embraces his dorky, sweet and love-sick persona (also costume designer Dayna Pink deserves awards for the clothes she puts him in, because he looks damn good!). Unfortunately, John Cena flounders terribly as Agent Burns, partly because the storyline is so dumb and partly because his "aw, shucks" honest charms don’t work in the character or the film.
So look, I’m not going to go so far as to say that ‘Bumblebee’ is a particularly great film by any stretch (this isn't a ‘Power Rangers’ situation we've got here). It relies on too many tired clichés, some lazy plotting and uninspired action sequences. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It has a great amount of genuine heart, a lovely relationship between its two lead characters, and goes some way to shifting the trajectory (we hope) of whatever 'Transformers' rubbish there is to come. It feels like what a 'Transformers' film should be – dumb colourful fun for everyone, not just pimply teenage boys with anger management issues. It’s a mostly forgettable way to spend a few hours, but for once with a 'Transformers' film, it’s only a few hours, it won’t leave you with a headache, and you won’t have to worry about ruining your child’s personality in the process.