Paramount’s Transformers movies have stood as one of those strange anomalies in the theatrical movie space. On the one hand, they seem to be widely despised by critics and moviegoers alike, due to their repetitive, uninteresting storylines, shallow characters and inane focus on over-the-top, pointless destruction. On the other hand however, the Transformers movie series has always been a huge moneymaker for the studio, often grossing around the neighbourhood of a billion dollars worldwide with each new installment, and making steadily more with each new sequel to boot. This pattern was finally broken with 2017’s especially disliked Transformers: The Last Knight however, which made just over half the box office gross of its two immediate predecessors, and had an especially lacklustre domestic box office intake. Finally, it seemed as if the Transformers movies would be meeting their long overdue end, at least in their current form.
Apparently though, Paramount would nonetheless proceed ahead with a planned Transformers spin-off movie for the very end of 2018, centering around one of the series’ fan-favourite Autobot heroes, Bumblebee. Initially hoping to at least eke out some easy money from family audiences over the Christmas holidays, Bumblebee was then dumped out alongside Warner Bros.’ and DC Entertainment’s competing superhero blockbuster, Aquaman (which, at the time of writing, has almost crossed the billion-dollar gross earnings mark worldwide), with even Paramount seeming to believe that their current run of the Transformers series is pretty much over. It’s a bit tragic in a way, since, believe it or not, Bumblebee is actually a good movie. It’s a very good movie, in fact!
It’s a bit strange to think that the recipe for making a good Transformers movie in this case is to apparently take out most of the titular Transformers, but that seems to have ended up being at least one advantage for Bumblebee. In thinning out the robotic cast, Bumblebee is now allowed to tell a more focused and distinct storyline, one with a ton of added personality that just wasn’t in the mainline Transformers movies for the most part. More than that however, Bumblebee seems to be put together with far more heart and inspiration than the mainline movie series that inspired it to begin with, propping itself up on a sense of charming 1980’s nostalgia, which makes it a clever and uplifting throwback to a simpler time for filmmaking, and for the Transformers franchise overall. It’s not often that a character-focused spin-off so completely trounces the ensemble series that came before it in terms of quality, but strange as it is, I can say without any hyperbole whatsoever that Bumblebee is quite simply the best Transformers movie to date!
As much as Bumblebee himself naturally takes up much of the focus in this spin-off, Bumblebee quickly elevates itself above any other Transformers movie that Paramount has currently delivered by finally featuring human personalities that truly matter. In the mainline Transformers movies, the human characters only feel like they’re there to gawk at the Transformers, or possibly deliver childish jokes for the amusement of their tween target audience. In Bumblebee however, the characters are far more real and grounded, while still being able to maintain a worthy participation in the action. It no doubt won’t surprise you to hear then that the jokes are a lot better in Bumblebee as well, particularly because they no longer focus on twisted sex or drug-related references, and can now unfold with legitimate wit and cleverness behind them, while still maintaining a child-like sense of wonder with Bumblebee himself.
Hailee Steinfeld quickly and effectively excises memories of Shia LaBeouf’s increasingly insufferable Sam Witwicky, portraying Bumblebee’s human lead, Charlie, a prickly teenager who is struggling with the loss of her father, and feels un-appreciated by her overworked mother, oblivious stepfather and obnoxious brother. Charlie is naturally in a hurry to leave her small town life behind, but of course, Bumblebee, who is initially voiced by Maze Runner lead, Dylan O’Brien, before quickly losing his ability to speak in the intro, throws that for a loop, when he gives Charlie a taste of that eventful, adventurous life that she longs for. Steinfeld delivers a very lovable and grounded lead performance as Charlie, especially when she has to spend so much time acting off of a non-existent effect, but it’s here where we see how surprisingly well-written Bumblebee often is; It’s easy for the audience to forget that Bumblebee is an effect, since he manages to feel like a real alien visitor, despite having no ability to speak, and despite not actually being there during filming.
This sharp focus on character with Charlie and the titular Autobot is why Bumblebee stands head-and-shoulders above any other Transformers movie to come before. Finally, the stakes matter. Finally, the emotions are there. Finally, the Transformers stand for something beyond simple-minded destruction. Some of the human characters still ultimately get lost in the shuffle, especially when there are still a weird handful of instances where one-off gag characters appear, simply to get killed off by the duo of evil Decepticons that do end up coming to Earth to hunt down Bumblebee, but fortunately, issues like this are pretty minor. There’s also something to be said about Bumblebee actually maintaining a sense of focus with its cast too. Unlike the more messy and scattered mainline movies, Bumblebee keeps its narrative priorities tight, allowing two lost souls to come together and realize that they have to be part of a world that’s bigger than their subjective concerns.
Of course, the U.S. military does remain involved in the story to some extent, namely through John Cena’s Agent Burns, a Sector 7 forerunner to John Turturro’s Seymour Simmons from the mainline Transformers movies. Burns becomes the unwitting liaison to Bumblebee’s two Decepticon villains, Dropkick, voiced by Justin Theroux, and Shatter, voiced by Angela Bassett, and while I wish he had more to do than be the token military character, he does end up getting some great scenes towards the climax, when Burns starts realizing what he’s truly up against. Theroux and Bassett manage to realize two of the best Decepticon characters in the history of Paramount’s Transformers movies as well, simply because they have actual layered personalities, and feel much more distinct and memorable than the vast majority of Decepticons that have been featured in these movies up to this point.
It may be a low bar, considering the frustrating lack of personality throughout much of the mainline Transformers movies that Paramount has delivered thus far, but even considering that, Bumblebee’s human characters and Transformer characters alike feel like they’re rooted in real, understandable values and quirks. Charlie’s coming-of-age struggle feels relatable, even for older adults, who have no doubt struggled with finding their place in the world at some point or another. Likewise, the currently uninitiated Bumblebee’s troubles with finding his way around Earth, especially when Charlie struggles to get him to stay hidden, quickly provides inspired doses of fun and humour, allowing that to shine throughout the storyline, rather than the umpteenth super-weapon that’s going to destroy Earth because the Decepticons found it lying around somewhere, a trope that is mercifully not maintained for Bumblebee. Maybe it’s just great to have a Transformers movie that’s about something else for a change, but either way, it’s a lot easier to care about the plight of humanity and the Autobots alike, when they actually give us something meaningfully human and heartfelt to latch on to!
Bumblebee’s storytelling isn’t always consistently airtight, especially when it rather blatantly retcons several elements of the Transformers’ history in this universe, as it was established in the original 2007 movie, but frankly, is anyone that invested in the lore of Paramount’s Transformers movies at this point? Bumblebee thus exists as something of a soft reboot for Paramount’s Transformers movies, presumably keeping the future canon of the mainline movies intact, but re-establishing the origin of the Transformers coming to Earth, and not really making any direct nods to story elements from any of the mainline movies after that, beyond one barely noticeable Sector 7 cameo later on. This approach is great though, since it allows Bumblebee to correct the increasingly bloated, unwieldy and vapid lore from the previous Transformers movies, in favour of focusing on a more clever and down-to-earth storyline that takes the franchise back to basics, something that Paramount’s Transformers movies very desperately needed to do years ago!
The plot devices are often very straightforward in Bumblebee, especially with the smaller scope of the storyline in this case, but this nonetheless stands as a fantastic testament to the fact that it’s better to do the simple stuff well than the ornate stuff poorly. Even with much of the movie being Charlie’s and Bumblebee’s secret interactions, while the U.S. military first starts learning about the existence of Transformers, the writing is clever and engaging enough to keep audiences consistently invested, minimizing the action to a few appropriate moments, in favour of cranking up the humour, personality and heart. This storytelling direction feels like an inversion of modern blockbuster beliefs, especially by Transformers standards, but the themes of family, respect and duty nonetheless shine through in Bumblebee, which provides a smart and surprisingly sophisticated blockbuster cocktail that looks to the past in order to revitalize the future, ironically injecting all sorts of life back into the storytelling of Paramount’s Transformers movie universe, even when it initially seemed practically dead-on-arrival over a decade ago!
It should come as no surprise that Bumblebee giving regular Transformers movie director, Michael Bay the boot is something that gives it an immediate advantage over its much-maligned mainline movie cousins. Bay remains involved with the production in a producing capacity, but his influence over the story and characters in this movie now seems to be non-existent, particularly with Bumblebee being directed by Travis Knight instead. Knight only has one other directing credit to his name at this point, that being Focus Features’ and Laika’s excellent and highly underrated Kubo and the Two Strings, but he’s quickly becoming a superb family blockbuster director to watch, since his directing efforts with Bumblebee also end up being sublime!
Knight is someone who clearly has a lot of love for old-school Transformers, and fortunately, he seems to have gotten minimal resistance from Paramount and Michael Bay alike when it comes to taking the Transformers franchise back to its roots, and cutting out all of the obnoxious, overdone fat and gristle from the Transformers movie sequels in particular. As I said, Knight’s direction finally allows the human characters to truly matter, and that completes the heart of the story in a powerful way, while also making the Transformers feel like they’re finally good for something other than causing a bunch of mayhem and destruction on Earth! At last, Bumblebee feels like a true hero who is in the midst of real, emotionally-charged stakes for humanity, even when he has to stand as the only Autobot defending Earth at this point.
It’s also apparent that Knight has a lot of love and reverence for the 1980’s period setting, and in turn, he manages to craft a true Spielberg-esque throwback blockbuster with Bumblebee. This feels fitting, since Spielberg, who has served as a recurring executive producer for Paramount’s Transformers movies, was apparently the one who came up with the concept for Bumblebee in the first place. As you can imagine then, there’s a wholesome, charming innocence to the fish-out-of-water storyline of Bumblebee, which borrows some lovable inspiration from retro blockbusters like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and the old-school Herbie movies, and combines that with a more adolescent, coming-of-age viewpoint to reflect the modern movie era’s tastes. The result is a funny, smart and charming blockbuster that manages to wring layers of lovable emotion and cartoon-ish fun that one would previously think impossible from Paramount’s Transformers movie catalogue!
Bumblebee’s period setting quite clearly influences the soundtrack, which is full of 1980’s throwback tunes. There’s a few touches of thrilling modern orchestra, but the rest of the soundtrack feels surprisingly quaint, calling back to a time before movies like this were built on explosive fanfare. Director, Travis Knight reunites with his Kubo and the Two Strings composer, Dario Marianelli for Bumblebee, resulting in a soundtrack that feels adventurous, yet in a more wide-eyed and almost mischievous sense, rather than a constant feeling of life-or-death stakes being behind every composition. Again, this is a bit ironic, since the stakes feel a lot more real in Bumblebee than they do in the aggressively glossy and fake-looking mainline Transformers movies. Lead actress, Hailee Steinfeld also contributes a tie-in single, “Back to Life” for Bumblebee, which is the most modern that the soundtrack gets. While this modern pop-flavoured single does feel a little out-of-place in a soundtrack that otherwise skews very retro, it’s at least peppy and catchy, so it could be worse.
Even with the reduced focus on blockbuster pomp, Bumblebee’s sound mixing and audio work still packs quite a bit of punch, especially in premium formats like IMAX, but it’s nowhere near as overdone and headache-inducing as it is in the mainline Transformers movies. The action scenes in Bumblebee manage to remain true to the gigantic scale of the Transformers themselves, who still dwarf humanity with their imposing frames and awesome power, but rather than displaying a constant effort to double down on blowing out viewers’ eardrums with more sensory stimulation than could possibly be necessary, Bumblebee instead provides a more balanced touch that makes its sound design feel impressive, yet no longer overbearing. This is no doubt good news for parents who don’t want to deal with crying children, or just a splitting headache on its own, since Bumblebee only tries as hard as it has to, and never feels like it’s trying to inexplicably overcompensate for something.
Bumblebee still contains a few scenes of explosive, destructive action, in what’s possibly the only real nod to Paramount’s mainline Transformers movies and their own bombastic blockbuster style. Even those action scenes are far more coherently directed and far more pleasant to watch than what most of the Transformers movies offer however, especially with the simpler, more easily discernible robot designs. The old-school Transformers G1-inspired look for not just Bumblebee, but several other Transformers that make cameos in the early stretches, carries far more character than the more aggressively alien-looking designs from the main Transformers movies, and that’s important, since this is a character-focused spin-off that is far more dependent on Bumblebee feeling like a more lifelike personality, and not just an effect. Fortunately though, Bumblebee strikes a superb balance between effects and character, making it feel like a blockbuster with some real heart behind it, especially when the nostalgic period setting is realized so effectively!
I happened to see Bumblebee in 3D as well, and while it’s hardly essential, the 3D did do a good job of adding some immersion and added scale to the production. Most of the 3D work is done for the sake of enhancing environments over action, but it’s cleanly-overlaid and never feels sloppy or intrusive. IMAX screenings for Bumblebee seem to be more limited in domestic territories, but that’s fine, since most of the chaotic scale from the mainline Transformers movies is no longer present here, with only the opening sequence on the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron feeling all that grand in scope by comparison. In this case though, smaller and more polished definitely feels better than what came before, with Bumblebee mercifully no longer building itself around overdone, brainless spectacle, and instead letting the simple charm of a displaced alien hero tell a story with a surprising amount of humanity behind it!
Bumblebee stands as quite possibly 2018’s most pleasant surprise at the movies, and that’s even considering the similarly great Aquaman movie that it’s competing with! What could have very easily been the last pathetic gasp for Paramount’s increasingly awful Transformers movies before they finally gave up the ghost, instead ended up being the potent spark of hope that wonderfully proves just how much lost potential still remains, now that Michael Bay isn’t sucking it up, and subsequently churning it into obnoxious explosion porn and uncomfortable sex jokes. This is the kind of Transformers movie that fans deserve, and one that general moviegoers no doubt wanted all along; A production packed full of spirit and personality, with a worthy dose of explosive action, but never at the expense of the relatable human conflicts underneath it.
As much as kids will continue to enjoy the humourous and slickly-produced robot hijinks, adult moviegoers, and especially longtime Transformers fans who first fell in love with this franchise over thirty years ago, will get the very most out of Bumblebee, with its lovable nostalgia and throwback blockbuster sensibilities. They truly don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a shame to think that Bumblebee may end up being a one-off too, since Paramount and Hasbro now seem ready to bulldoze the current Transformers movie franchise in favour of starting completely fresh, this time without the lucrative, but damaging influence of Michael Bay. Even if that ends up being the case however, at least the charming and well-executed final product of Bumblebee should provide a strong template for how to realize a big screen Transformers movie effectively, even if you don’t have that many actual Transformers to work with.
- Hailee Steinfeld's highly entertaining double act with Bumblebee
- Nostalgic presentation that calls back to a simpler era for blockbusters
- Exciting, well-produced action that no longer feels obnoxious and overdone
- A few characters still sometimes get lost in the shuffle