The “Transformers” films have a pretty rough legacy. They’re on the ass-end of toys-turned-action films, and somehow even manage to be outdone in story and character by the ‘80s cartoon, which is frankly an accomplishment all on its own. However, with a change in leadership and a seemingly smaller scale, the franchise entertained a spark of hope at the tail end of 2018 with a prequel and very non-committal soft reboot. Everyone knows that a surefire way to fix a franchise is with a prequel, because they are often very good and get a very good reception. Okay, that’s not fair – there are some very good prequels and even a lot of the prequels folks tend to dislike are actually pretty good.
Luckily for us, Travis Knight’s “Bumblebee” falls into the category of good prequels, as well as the far less populated category of prequels that surpass whatever original they are preceding. “Bumblebee” is still a very shiny action film filled with robots punching each other, but underneath the gloss and explosions lies heart, direction and a love for the source material that never felt entirely present in any of Michael Bay’s films.
Many of the strengths of “Bumblebee” are the weak points of the first series of films. The human characters are not screaming, awkward lunatics; the transformers’ designs are more faithful to the first generation designs of the ‘80s cartoon and the transformers themselves are better developed characters.
“Bumblebee” follows the story of a soldier, B-187, who is forced to flee his home and his family in an attempt to secure a place for his people to regroup. Doing his best to evade any pursuers, he ends up falling in love with a human character, Charlie (played by Hailee Steinfeld), and they eventually help each other get back to the people who need them. It’s still no doubt an action blockbuster at its core, but it has genuine-feeling heart to it. The word wholesome comes to mind.
The performances in general were all quite good. There is a good amount of credit due to the film’s writer, Christina Hodson, but the main human cast was compelling and not difficult to watch this time around. Steinfeld has good chemistry with a CGI character, which is a thing that’s very easy to get wrong, and a substantial part of her character arc relating to the loss of her father felt good and connected well. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. teeters on the edge of playing a comic relief character, but in the end, is also a genuine human person.
Visual fidelity-wise, this film stands right alongside the five “Transformers” films preceding it. Even with a sizably smaller budget, the visual effects look just as good as they always have. The area in which “Bumblebee” far surpasses any of its predecessors is in visual design. Gone are the days of all the Decepticons being strange grey crab monsters, and if you’ll excuse a very minor spoiler, the film opens with a scene set at the tail end of the war for Cybertron that had me grinning like an idiot the whole time.
The character design of both Autobot and Decepticon alike harken so lovingly back to the ‘80s designs, and not only are they recognizable to fans from those days, but they also are just generally much cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing designs. Despite it being only a couple of minutes long and completely CGI, the opening stands out as one of the best scenes from the film, and works as both a blast of nostalgia and a relatively good establishing sequence for becoming familiar with the world of transformers.
Stepping away from mythos of the source material for a second, this film is more than just a nostalgia trip. It does a really good job of capturing the ‘80s through music and production design.
Charlie is a character who’s more than a shell, but she’s someone who’s easy to empathize with, especially through the attachment she feels to her alien companion. It’s a pinch of “ET” (the being friends with an alien part, not the terrifying medical facilities part) and a sprinkle of “The Iron Giant,” managing to capture that wonderment and feeling of genuine friendship with something that is far from traditionally friend-shaped.
“Bumblebee” doesn’t completely escape the legacy of the other “Transformers” films, and there are a couple more comical scenes that really did not land. The action scenes also continue to tend towards two masses of metal smashing into each other with very inconsistent fragility and shots so close you can’t really understanding what’s happening. It’s not a zero-sum game though, and there are a number of sequences that are very well choreographed and create some amount of actual tensions.