Back when Transformers came out in 2007, the idea that a film could be centered around a toy seemed ridiculous. With the guidance of Michael Bay, Transformers became a massive franchise that leaned into its stupidity, featuring all the grace and intricacy of watching a child smash all of their Transformer toys into each other and screaming. At a certain point, Transformers became an inevitable evil, a ridiculously stupid series that would spit out a new installment every few years and remind us that Stanley Tucci deserves much better than this. As it turns out, with the sixth and only good installment in the series – Bumblebee – it wasn’t the toys that were the problem, it was the man slamming these toys into bits that made this series unwatchable.
Bay always took the world of giant robots that could turn into various vehicles far too seriously. The battle between the Autobots and Decepticons had world-destroying consequences, and the political and military process with dealing with these robots became central to Bay’s take. Bay made his Transformers franchise into a dark, severely earnest interpretation that ignored just how ridiculous this concept actually was. After the landmark garbage pile that was Transformers: The Last Knight, the franchise has moved in a new direction, with the first spinoff by Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight. This change, and a fun and simplified script by Christina Hodson, makes all the difference to this series.
Knight and Hodson show that a strong sense of tone and character is really what this franchise needed the most. Bumblebee keeps much of the same skeleton as the 2007 Transformers film, featuring a rock-shirt-wearing lead who discovers their new car is more than meets the eye. Bumblebee takes place in San Francisco in the late 80s, and Bumblebee leans into the 80s nostalgia of when Transformers was at its original height in popularity. Because of this, Bumblebee is naturally more colorful, lighter in tone and generally more charming.
In Bumblebee, Hailee Steinfeld is this generation’s Sam Witwicky of sorts. As Charlie, she receives a busted Volkwagen bug from her mechanic uncle for her eighteenth birthday. Charlie has been somewhat lost since her father died. She spends most of her time working on a car her and her father were trying to fix up, and after her mother (Pamela Adlon) remarried, Charlie never felt like she fit into this new family. While trying to repair her new car, Charlie realizes that her new car is actually Bumblebee, an Autobot that has lost the ability to speak. As Charlie attempts to fix Bumblebee, she learns that her car is an integral part of a civil war between machines that could result in the end of her own world.
Knight and Hodson’s take on the Transformers world is less about the destruction about metal and more about the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee. Hodson’s script feels similar to E.T., in terms of a character missing their father and finding friendship in an extra-terrestrial, and Hodson also keeps details to a necessary minimum. While Transformers films have gotten too mixed up in military presence and searching for various doodads, Bumblebee sticks with the friendship aspect, and a relatively simple threat that doesn’t rely on quest after quest.
Bumblebee still does have a military presence, let by John Cena’s Agent Burns – who saw his team destroyed by Decepticons – but the film thankfully keeps these segments short and sweet, and often reminiscent of The Shape of Water at times.
Without the military versus robot conceit, and the smaller scale of the action, Knight’s fight sequences are actually quite good. Bumblebee begins with a massive battle on Cybertron, but even the way Knight films this makes the action clear and exciting, without the clumsiness that previous Transformers films have been known for. When the action comes to Earth, most fights are one-on-one between robots, and the focus on these characters transforming into their various forms makes these fights manageable and unpredictable. With Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight found a way to make the hero’s weaknesses a strength, and he does that again here effectively with both Charlie and Bumblebee. Still, when Bumblebee does focus on the problems between robots and the military’s involvement, the story does slow down, a problem that remains common with this series.
Even the comedy in Bumblebee is handled quite well. Hodson’s screenplay plays well with the comedic strengths of both Cena and Steinfeld, the comedic set pieces are quite good, and finally, characters address how ridiculous this entire situation actually is. But the real star here is Hodson, who bases all the humor and action around characters that are set up nicely, and creates a film about a girl and her robot car that’s actually sweet and surprisingly touching.
The bar is incredibly low, but Bumblebee is without a doubt the best Transformers film so far. But what’s truly impressive and shocking is that Bumblebee is actually an enjoyable, cohesive story with solid action, great jokes, and genuine emotional moments. After eleven years of successful disasters, Bumblebee proves that the Transformers franchise just needed some fresh blood behind the camera to make this series something actually wonderful.