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.
I’m a big Transformers fan having grown up on the original cartoon, played with the toys, read the comics, and still collect the toys (I stopped playing with them, too complicated now). I’ve been a patient fan watching the Michael Bay relaunched films and their progression down the tubes and attempting to get my enjoyment from the animated releases (some aimed at my demographic and some not). So, going into Bumblebee I, as I usually do, hope for the best and expect the worst. Bumblebee it turns out is the best and what we’ve been waiting for.
All those years ago, before the release of Michael Bay’s first Transformers, Steven Spielberg described the concept as “a boy and his car.” That’s not what was released but 11 years later we finally get that vision courtesy of director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson.
The duo of creatives have taken some of the best concepts of the original Transformers Generation 1 (ie the cartoon) and infused it with kids classics like ET and Iron Giant.
At its heart, Bumblee is about family. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie Watson who is struggling after her father has passed away and her mother has found a new boyfriend (assuming that they’re not married, it’s never really said) and her brother has accepted the new family dynamic. Charlie is also turning 18 and doesn’t fit in with the kids in her school. She’s rocking 80s to the California bright pop 80s around her. She doesn’t fit in. Enter Bumblebee who has escaped Cybertron to hide out on Earth, protect it from Decepticons, and begin a new beachhead in the Autobot resistance.
Bumblebee has come to Earth after an opening that’s everything fans of the original Transformers have wanted. With designs hearkening back to those designs, it’s a who’s who battle on Cybertron as the planet falls to the Decepticons and the Autobots abandon the planet realizing it’s lost. The opening is a flag in the ground to forget the five live action films that have come before. This one has more in common with the cartoons.
Bumblebee is lost on Earth. Separated from his fellow Autobots, he’s more ET than anything else. A military is pursuing him, he’s scared, lost, and afraid. Knight and Hodson have made sure to focus on the heart of it all, emphasizing this is a story of two outcasts coming together in friendship and forming a new family in a way.
The conflict is both Decepticons who are in pursuit of Bumblebee and the US military who mistaken him for an enemy after a series of mistakes. The film falls into tropes in a way but delivers them in such a way it feels more of an homage at times to films that have come before than anything else. The idyllic suburban homes remind us of a certain setting for an alien who also wanted to phone home, including the lock down of the home due to the threat. The pursuit of the military and want by the military to use these aliens as weapons reminds us of another animated robot film.
The film is an homage in a way diving deep into its 80s setting in both movies it winks at and everything we see. There’s cassettes, old televisions, the music, so much will take you back and that includes the robots themselves.
Is any of the film new? No, not really. What we see on screen is nothing new but it’s done at a level that’s so good, we can forget that and just enjoy the fun. And that’s exactly what the film is, fun. It never forgets what it is and pokes fun at itself (with John Cena delivering one of the best lines as far as that). It also has a lot of heart as well. And that’s where the film soars. There’s touching moments, just like those classic films. The family dynamic, the situations presented, they’re all something we can relate to. There’s something here for everyone to see themselves in.
A lot has to do with the casting who beyond Steinfeld and Cena include the underrated Pamela Adlon as Steinfeld’s mother, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. as Memo, the love interest for Steinfeld, Jason Drucker as her younger brother Otis, and Stephen Schnelder as her mother’s new love interest. They’re the main humans and behind the scene there’s an impressive voice cast that includes Dylan O’Brien as Bumblebee and Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett, Peter Cullen, and more. The list of Transformers present is long and fans will go wild trying to see them all. But, it’s the humans that bring the film down to a level we can relate to a grounds it in so many ways.
Bumblebee is one of the best blockbusters of the year and an unexpected triumph. It’s everything we’ve wanted in a Transformers film and shows how off the mark the original five were and are. This screams Spielberg in both its plot and its heart. It’s one of the best family films of the year and hopefully the start of something special going forward.
Overall Rating: 8 out of 10