Synopsis – On the run in the year of 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie, on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken.
My Take – Ever since its live action launch in 2007, Transformers, the Michael Bay directed franchise based on the Hasbro toy-line, has become synonymous with money burning, ear bleeding, CGI feasting blockbuster film making, especially for critics from whom the series has never been more than an overused doormat on which they keep wiping their foot wear on. Rightfully so, especially for the headache inducing second installment, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
But as the succeeding films raked in billions at the box office, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks seemed assured that millions of fans would continue to turn up, no matter what they bring to the screen. An important factor which fired back with their last film, Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), which ended up earning just $605.4 million, nearly half of 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction’s worldwide revenue of $1.104 billion. Even though it’s been only a year since the film’s debacle, it seemed quite surprising when another installment with Michael Bay retaining his producer’s chair was announced.
However, what makes this film different from the rest is that it acts as a soft reboot to the series, and focuses solely on single character from the Autobot brigade, but most importantly it has Travis Knight, the man who made the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), an emotionally sophisticated and charming animated feature from LAIKA, stepping in as the director. While at first it sounded worrisome considering how the Transformers films followed a fixed template of being bloated and ridiculous, and Knight as a director has shown some genuine creative instincts, but having seen this, as a fan myself I can comfortably say that this film lives up to being one of the best and right behind the first film that came out in 2007.
Unlike the previous films, this spinoff is more of an intimate character piece and by borrowing the warmth of films like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the Iron Giant, screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight have breathe fresh air into this decaying series. It also manages to rekindle the spirit of the 80s cartoon series, with an additional unexpected dose of warmth and humor.
Set in 1987, the film follows Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), an awkward teenager still coping with the loss of her father, and coming to terms with the fact that her mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) has moved on with Ron (Stephen Schneider), a goofball. As a gesture to her father’s memories she spends her spare time at her uncle’s junkyard, scavenging for parts to fix her beloved father’s Corvette, but being stuck with a minimum wage job and an embarrassing scooter as her ride, Charlie hopes her mother would consider her troubles and buy her a car on her eighteenth birthday.
Meanwhile, on the planet Cybertron, the Autobots have failed in their last stand, and are forced to evacuate with plans to regroup somewhere else. With only moments to spare, their leader, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), dispatches his most loyal lieutenant, B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), a yellow robo-battler to Earth, a just-discovered planet full of creatures called humans and oddly non-sentient cars and trucks. B-127 must set up base on this world, protect its inhabitants and wait for the surviving Autobots to eventually arrive. But things don’t go as planned as he crash lands in the middle of a Sector 7 training exercise led by Jack Burns (John Cena), and is ambushed immediately by a Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov), a Decepticon seeker. With his voice lost and memories tattered after the combat, B-127 turns into beaten up, yellow Volkswagen Beetle and goes into hiding.
That is until he discovered by Charlie, who quickly becomes his new friend and names him Bumblebee. However, unknown to them, two Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux), have also arrived on the planet in search of him, and have paired up with Sector 7 to bring him down.
The concept is like E.T. but only this time the bad guys are phoning home. Gone are the risible mix of mythology and militarism, replaced by simplified conflict and an emphasis on the friendship between an outcast and an exile. Gone also is the leering, dorm-room poster sexuality, replaced by a notably chaste teen romance that doesn’t get past first base. The film is one heck of a fun ride. It has action, humor, heart and character, as well as a plot that respects the source. The film seems to have more of a family-friendly mandate than director Bay‘s Transformers films, but the lightness and earnestness serves the material well.
The roaring eighties soundtrack and teenage girl angst is skillfully blended with the robot carnage and Christina Hodson‘s screenplay respects the characters. The film is at its best when its focus is Charlie. While she initially is written with a tough exterior, the screenplay very cleverly calls the audience out for jumping to those negative assumptions about a female character who is in pain. Charlie has a lot of personality. Her family and social life are thoroughly explored. Charlie finds Bumblebee at a low point. He’s confused and frightened, needs help. The two of them have wonderful chemistry together, especially as the film flips director Bay’s talking through the radio gag into one of the key emotional beats.
It gets even better when Jorge Lendeborg Jr. comes in as Memo, Charlie’s awkward neighbor who’s got a mean crush on her. There’s a nice rapport there and there are a number of moments where our expectations about the “nice guy who gets the girl” troupe are subverted. The previous Transformers films lacked feeling, and how much ever you devoured on them, they were just cold, and purely visual spectacles. Another thing that floored me about the film was how accurately it captured the spirit and atmosphere of living in 1987.
Most films set during a modern/recent time period feel like just that: A film trying to give its best impression of what life was like back then. This film really feels like its set in the ’80s, almost to the point you’d swear it was actually filmed back then and kept on a shelf until now.
Here, director Travis Knight‘s experience as an animation director is evident here. He previously made the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings and understands how to use visual effects to express intent and emotions. Bumblebee says very little in the film. His facial expressions and mannerisms convey meaning. He goes from tender, humorous moments, to knockdown brawls. His smaller stature in comparison to other Transformers is used to his advantage. He has a unique fighting style that beats down larger opponents. Except for the huge opening scene, Bumblebee’s fights are mainly hand to hand. I think these are far more effective than CGI onslaughts.
Here, director Travis Knight brings a vastly different style to Transformers, a welcome change that will definitely be embraced by fans. Also in director Knight‘s vision, they look exactly like their cartoon counterparts, the way they should. The film opens with a huge battle on Cybertron and, even in the chaos, you can tell which robot is which (including a couple fun cameos for us superfans). I knew I was in for a different kind of Transformers experience when I found myself giddily grinning ear-to-ear during this relatively short intro.
However, despite the improvements, the film does falter in quite a few departments. Most importantly being the concept, which is clearly a rip off from the 1999 animated film, The Iron Giant, where a potentially powerful weapon ditches its programming and discovers humanity. But being a Transformers film, a significant chunk of the film ends up being about the Decepticons and their plot to catch Bumblebee. Every beat of this subplot is contrived, and the leaps that the humans make to trust these robots in the first place are absurd.
The relationships also suffer here, other than the leads, relationship between Charlie and her semi-charming love interest Memo and her Charlie and her excitable little brother (Jason Drucker), are developed in hastily scrawled shorthand, a jumble of notes about stuff that usually happens in a film. This applies to the most basic plot mechanics, too; the film pays so little mind to Bumblebee’s memory erasure that it’s easy to forget how crucial it’s supposed to be. Also, while director Knight may have made a family-friendlier film, he also takes advantage of how he can apparently show people being liquefied right there on screen, as long as the resulting goop is watery instead of bloody.
Coming to the performances, there is no two doubts that the film belongs to Hailee Steinfeld, who once again crushes it. She brings a raw-nerve irritability to Charlie, and manages to sell the connection between Charlie and Bumblebee, at one point acting the hell out of an emotional moment with what was probably a ball atop a stick against a green screen. John Cena unfortunately has an underwritten part, but manages to be at his goofy best. Jorge Lendeborg Jr is good too, so are Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider.
In smaller roles, Jason Drucker, Abby Quinn, Rachel Crow, Grace Dzienny, Kenneth Choi and Ricardo Hoyos are alright, while Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux and Dylan O’Brien contribute well to the voice work. On the whole, ‘Bumblebee’ is a triumphant action packed film that marks as return to form for a franchise that required emotional depth.
Directed – Travis Knight
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 113 minutes