Bumblebee is the kind of prequel that feels more like a soft reboot in that it’s selective about which parts of the previous Transformers movies are relevant. It ignores certain details and plot points while referencing others, resulting in a simplified, scaled down movie that sometimes feels like a welcome change in direction. Streamlining the convoluted franchise seems like the right way to go on paper but Bumblebee loses too much cohesion and spectacle to really make that work. Travis Knight may be the right director to fix Transformers, though this attempt isn’t quite there. Bumblebee is not bad, especially for a Transformers movie, but being the best of that bunch is a very low bar to clear.
The story follows Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who just wants a car for her 18th birthday, a chance to get some freedom from her life and family. The perfect car comes along and it’s actually Bumblebee, an alien robot warrior in hiding on Earth. They form a friendship while trying to evade the military and other alien robots that are hunting him down.
Writer Christina Hodson makes a valiant effort to recenter the franchise on strong characters, believable events and relationships. The trouble is that the plot of Bumblebee is a stripped down, messy redo of the first Transformers. It gets rid of a lot of the excess Michael Bay brought to that movie, yet isn’t able to fully capitalize on what it preserves. For example, a lot of the comedy and emotional payoffs are undercut by an uneven tone. None of that comedy is offensive, for a change, but it’s not exactly an improvement either. Many of the jokes just don’t land, though they may work better for the kids in the audience.
Thematically, there’s slightly more to dig into here than the relationship between a young person and their first car. Charlie is a well written character and Steinfeld acts her heart out, bringing plenty of relatable nerve and angst. Her friendship with Bumblebee is charming, evoking the same E.T. vibe that the first Transformers (occasionally) did. The way this bond intersects with her family life is where most of the emotional meat of the movie is, which represents Bumblebee at its best.
The movie weakens whenever the focus diverts from the leads. Charlie’s family is entertaining in their few scenes while unfortunately not given the kind of material that leaves an impression. Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider are very funny people in a movie where “family friendly” often translates to dull. The military subplot is broader, sillier, and less realistic in the details but this doesn’t altogether hurt the movie when the trade-off is dropping Bay’s jingoistic machismo. John Cena, who anchors this part of the movie, feels like stunt casting. Veering wildly between hardened tough guy and comic relief, his motivations are never less than murky, leaving the conclusion of his story feeling unearned. Worse off is Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a character the movie has no idea what to do with and never finds a use for. Similarly, the movie drops a whole subplot involving other teenagers. This leaves the two bad Transformers, neither of whom is given a personality or motivation beyond “be bad”. With so much of the movie spent on weak characters and subplots, viewers may get restless while waiting for the movie to get back to the good stuff.
Because the movie takes place in 1987, it rides the recent wave of 80’s nostalgia very hard. There are plenty of examples in the movie and mileage will vary on whether these are welcome or distracting. Overall, it means that Bumblebee has pretty good music and a few fun moments that feel plucked right out of 80’s movies. However, most of the references don’t go anywhere, seeming designed to trick the audience into feeling like there’s something more than the fleeting satisfaction of quick recognition.
The design of the Transformers is getting attention for aligning more with the Generation 1 toys of the 80’s, which fits and will please hardcore fans. That said, there isn’t much action in Bumblebee with what’s there feeling scaled down and weightless. The designs are generally easier to “read” on screen despite plenty of typically confusing CG shots of robotic limbs clashing against each other. Nothing especially impressive.
Bumblebee is going to do well as an overdue course correction for the mostly terrible Transformers movies. It does a great job of focusing on the kids, something these movies probably always should have done. It overcompensates to get there, smoothing out any kind of rough edge or interesting specificity in favor of predictable, overly familiar beats. These then fall by the wayside so that the third act can blow up the stakes and action. At the end of the day, it’s a bland, agreeable movie that fails to transcend the franchise it came from but may offer more enjoyment, with fewer qualms, than any Transformers movie yet.