Among seasoned cinephiles, the Transformers movies have become punchlines in their own right. While they’re not incompetently made. They are generally unpleasant to watch and lack any respect for its source material. To the point where it just ceases to be a Transformers movie. However, even though everybody seems to generally agree with how horrible they are on entertainment or even moral level, the films have continued to make money hand over fist regardless. Nobody seemed to be figuring out that the movies were awful. That is, until the last one, which at that point was the lowest grossing film in the Transformers franchise. This sudden realization is the reason I think nobody is going to see Bumblebee; the film hasn’t even made its modest $100 million budget back. Was it deserving?
Set in the 1980s, an Autobot scout is sent to Earth to defend the planet and prepare a new base for his fellow Autobots. However, his memory is damaged and he is forced to take the vehicle form of a yellow Volkswagen bug. He’s taken in by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an outsider who names him Bumblebee. Charlie must hide Bumblebee from her parents, government soldiers (the leader played by John Cena), and a duo of Decepticons who have arrived to kill him.
The setup isn’t original, as it’s basically a remake of The Iron Giant, but I think that was by design. The filmmakers have intentionally modeled the plot structure after that of popular kids movies to turn Bumblebee into what the last five Transformers films should’ve been: a kids film. As a franchise designed to sell toys, Transformers has always been sorely out of place in the Micheal Bay world of gritty military drama and overly mature frat boy humor. The eighties-style kids’ movie plot fits the material much better; a sense of levity and fun are where there was once aggression and unpleasantness.
The problem with the setup, however, is that there’s nothing about it that screams “Transformers“. Say what you want about the last five films, but they undeniably had their own identity that couldn’t have been anything but a Transformers movie, however, warped or unpleasant that identity was. On the other hand, Bumblebee‘s plot could’ve just as quickly been used for anything. Outside of the fantastic opening scene set on the Transformers home world of Cybertron, there’s nothing about the setup or plot progression that makes it a uniquely Transformers movie.
However, the generic setup is given life by the genuinely sweet relationships between the characters. The connection between Charlie and Bumblebee is shown effectively as they both try to fix each other. Charlie tries to fix Bee’s malfunctioning body and Bee helps fix Charlie’s emotional distress.
The characters are given extra life through their actors and the director. Hailee Steinfeld takes what otherwise have been a generic outsider character and gives it a vulnerability and likable energy. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. brings a lot of likability to the adorkable love interest and John Cena acquits himself admirably even though he’s shaping up to be a better comedic actor than a dramatic one. The character of Bumblebee, however, is where director Travis Knight gets to show why he was chosen for the job. Knight previously made a name for himself directing the stop-motion critical darling Kubo and the Two Strings back in 2016. His animation experience serves him well in giving the Transformers visual personality. Since he can’t speak, a lot of who Bumblebee is is portrayed through his facial expressions and how he moves.
Other technical aspects are, however, lacking. The cinematography and lighting are serviceable. The color scheme of the costumes fit each character adequately. The colors for the sets are bright and vibrant, adding to the sense that this is a kid’s film. I had a slight complaint with the set design of Charlie’s house; from what I gathered from the dialogue, her family is supposed to be struggling with money, but their house looks like a middle-class California home. Makes me wonder if the set designer knows what money troubles look like.
The main technical gripe I have is with the action scenes. The action is comprised of chases and for the most part they work well. The problem comes when the Transformers have to fight each other. The issue from the last five movies remains the same: I can’t tell what’s going on. It’s a little better in Bumblebee because the more coherent character designs don’t call for extraneous robot parts to be flying everywhere. However, there is still the issue of scale.
The Transformers films are in a unique predicament when it comes to portraying their particular giant robots because their size is so unique. They’re not small enough to fit in the frame as humans, but they’re not big enough that you can get impressive wide scale shots to fit the whole scene in the frame. You’re either left with a wider shot which shows an empty frame or a closer shot where the screen is filled with incoherent robot parts. The speed of the robots doesn’t help either; unlike in Pacific Rim and similar giant monster/robot movies, the Transformers are incredibly fast. Their weight doesn’t seem to come at the cost of speed so that they can move almost as fast as human beings, maybe even quicker. This speed combined with their bulky designs makes it difficult to stage a good fight scene between two of them. You will still struggle at times to follow the flow of the battle, especially in the Cybertron opening scene where bright neon highlights against dark backdrops add to the confusion.
Summary: A LOT of the enjoyment in Bumblebee comes from novelty. A Transformers film finally didn’t suck. It was the fun family adventure it was always meant to be. It seems like the filmmakers are genuine fans of the material. The novelty won’t last and the sequel will have to step it up majorly. However, for now, there’s a good Transformers movie out in theaters. Since that’s all it was trying to be, I think that’s enough.