Watching Bumblebee, you’re left wondering how Paramount let Michael Bay direct five Transformers movies when only the first one is even remotely good. The answer, of course, is money and it wasn’t until profits dipped dramatically with the last installment, Transformers: The Last Knight that Paramount finally decided to give someone else a shot. They decided to go with a spinoff/prequel focusing on the lovable Autobot Bumblebee, and in the hands of director Travis Knight, it’s shocking how much better this franchise becomes. There are characters! Conflicts have weight! People grow and change! You can actually tell what’s happening because the shot geography isn’t an eyesore of gears and explosions! But Bumblebee isn’t just a good movie in comparison to the trainwreck of the Transformers franchise. It’s a good family film that may not be bursting with originality, but still has heart and humor to spare.
Set in 1987, the film starts off with the war on Cybertron. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and his resistance of Autobots are fleeing the Decepticons, and Optimus Sends his trusted soldier B-127, aka Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien), to Earth. When he lands in California, he immediately runs into trouble against soldiers led by Agent Burns (John Cena), and, more troubling, a Decepticon. Bumblebee manages to defeat the Deception, but not before losing his voice box and most of his memories in the process. He transforms into a VW Bug before losing consciousness but is later found by teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). While trying to restore him (thinking that he’s just a normal car), Bumblebee transforms and Charlie, who is also trying to come to grips with the loss of her father, finds a needed friend who she must protect from both government forces and Decepticons.
Bumblebee is basically E.T. meets The Iron Giant, and you could do far worse when it comes to influences. The movie isn’t competing with those classics as much as it’s competing with the other Transformers movies, and it proceeds to crush all of them. There isn’t a single area where Bay outperforms Knight. You would think that Bay, known for his action movies would have the upper hand, but Knight shows the value of good shot geography and just holding the camera still for more than two seconds. It feels like the Transformers are actually in our world rather than just hunks of CGI smashing against each other. Additionally, by scaling back and really just having one hero, Bumblebee, and two bad guys, Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett), everything feels more cohesive.
Where the film really shines is in the friendship between Bumblebee and Charlie. At times, the plot almost feels like a hinderance since the best scenes are just the characters hanging out. If Bumblebee were just Bumblebee, Charlie, and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who has a crush on Charlie, being buddies and getting up to mischief, I’d be totally fine with that. The plot is serviceable and moves things along, but the heart of the movie is how Bumblebee and Charlie’s friendship heals both of them, and that’s when the movie is at its cutest, funniest, and most endearing.
I was constantly amazed at how much Bumblebee won me over, not just because I’ve found every Transformers movie since the first one to be an utter chore, but because I’ve never been into the Transformers franchise. I didn’t play with the toys when I was a kid, and I didn’t watch the animated series. I have no prior attachment to these characters, so the movies have to find a reason for me to care, and Bumblebee is the first one to accomplish that. Knight almost outdoes himself at the beginning with the war on Cybertron and you’re seeing the first-generation designs that are so much better than the over-designed garbage that we’ve previously seen in these movies. If Paramount wanted to go ahead and make a movie that took place entirely on Cybertron, I think they could manage it provided Knight or someone like him was in charge.
If you’ve felt burnt out on the Transformers franchise, I more than understand. The biggest fault of Bumblebee is how it shows the series could have been so much better if Paramount had moved on from Bay sooner and brought in someone who cared about characters and story. I’ve seen the previous five Transformers movies, and I could not tell you what happened in any of them. They’re instantly disposable at best. But Bumblebee feels like the first time that care and attention has been paid to this series, and it shows that Transformers were not the problem. It’s fun to watch alien robots punch each other and have Autobots bond with humans. For the first time, a franchise intended for children is actually appropriate for children. Making a good Transformers movie wasn’t an impossible task; Bumblebee shows they just needed a better director behind the wheel.