Bumblebee is the live-action Transformers movie we all wanted in the ‘80s. It took 20 years for the technology to be able to create these movies, and then another decade for the sensibility to come back around to good natured kid-friendly action. 10-year-old Franchise Fred approves and so does 41-year-old Franchise Fred.
B-127 arrives on Earth in 1987 to scout the planet as a possible Autobot base. In a skirmish involving Jack Burns (John Cena) and his unit, B-127 loses his voice box and transforms into a VW Bug before losing his power and memory. 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the bug in a junkyard and names him Bumblebee.
The 1987 soundtrack goes a long way towards making Bumblebee feel like a film from the summer of Adventures in Babysitting and Harry and the Hendersons. Bumblebee is a kids movie, but it’s more of a joy for adults than the overwrought serious tone of the Michael Bay films. The key difference seems to be Bumblebee is aware of its own absurdity.
Your mom (Pamela Adlon) borrowing your car without asking is a real teenage problem even when your car is not a robot from space. The film pauses to reflect on Charlie’s grief over the loss of her father, sometimes superficially, but with genuine heart. They found a new magical way for Bumblebee to reveal his true form to her, when we’ve seen such a reveal in another movie, and her gentle interactions with him conveys all the communication you need.
Cena’s form of military dude is decidedly goofier than Michael Bay’s macho reverence. They’re both cartoonish portrayals of the military but this one is more fun.
The action is just as explosive and massive as Michael Bay’s but not as busy and cluttered. Bumblebee’s combat moves are the focus. He seems to do MMA takedowns. Did Autobots invent MMA?
The camera zooms around but doesn’t shake. Decepticons obliterate humans. It’s goofy but they’re still dead. There’s also a bunch of goofy comedic action where no one gets hurt. Those don’t always go together, but individually each moment works.
Bumblebee also gets into some childish mischief with Charlie. If you hated the backyard scene in Transformers, there’s a lot more of that in Bumblebee although it makes a bit more sense as to why Bumblebee is clumsy. I love the backyard scene so I find the continuing bumbling of Bumblebee charming. Bumblingbee? I don’t know.
Charlie is for sure the best human protagonist of this series. That’s a low bar, but Bumblebee nails the “girl and her car” story better than Sam Witwicky’s adventure. It’s not just for material glory or even for personal freedom. Having a car fulfills an emotional part of Charlie, and Bumblebee listens to her when her busy family does not. It’s also cool that a boy plays the thankless love interest role that women have been saddled with for decades of action films. Turnabout is fair play.
Bumblebee links up well with the 2007 Transformers, not so much with The Last Knight’s flashbacks. But it doesn’t need an amnesia bullet or memory wipe to justify its timeline. It’s far less egregious than the X-Men or Terminator timelines and there’s still room for more standalone Bumblebee movies which I expect there will be after this one.