Bumblebee is old fashioned in many respects, but it makes up for it by scaling down bombastic action in favor of emotion and character.
Here it is, the movie that managed to bring some positive buzz about the franchise.
…I’ll see myself out.
Directed by Travis Knight, Bumblebee is a spinoff and prequel to the Transformers film series. It features the titular character Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) who escapes his home planet Cybertron during a war with the antagonistic decepticons, and crash-lands on Earth. He eventually encounters a troubled teen named Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), and the two foster a kinship while trying to deal with the imminent arrival of other Transformers, both good and bad.
When it comes to movies to riff on, the Transformers film series – more specifically the five films directed by Michael Bay – are a fruit hanging so low it buried itself into the ground. Hackneyed, juvenile, convoluted: all those are valid descriptions of the movies before this one. Explaining further will devolve into a spiel that would be as repetitive as the movies themselves, so I’ll spare you the lecture. What’s important is that the Bayformers, so to speak, were cinematic junk food. And not the actually filling Five Guys kind, I’m talking the thin and sour MacDonalds kind.
However, Bumblebee surprised everyone back in 2018 with how much better it was compared to what came before. I was of that camp as well, as I was so glad to see there were no humping dogs or Bud Light product placements. But perhaps I was caught up in the moment back then; it could very well be that anything above average was enough to clear the low bar the Bayformers set. So I revisited this one with some caution.
Thankfully, I can safely say that a most of my positivity stood the test of time. Bumblebee still largely works, mainly thanks to its simplicity. The Bayformers focused on expanding the lore as much as possible, introducing alien macguffins faster than Michael Bay adds explosions to his movies. Here, the general premise about the war between Transformers is set, but that is pretty much it. The movie starts smaller, giving audiences time to absorb the worldbuild that they have.
And the simplicity doesn’t stop there. Character dynamics have also been cut down from the previous web of intrigue messier than a Transformers fan’s action figure collection. The film focuses mainly on Charlie and Bumblebee. Their interactions can range from funny to touching. If the film made me think a giant hulking yellow robot was acting pretty adorable, it had to be doing something right.
However, you may have noticed that I said “most” of my positivity survived. Looking back, there were some aspects of the movie that, while not game breakers, I overlooked a bit in my joy of finding a Transformers movie that didn’t make me want to burn down an action figure store.
A lot of that has to do with tropes. There are a lot of story beats and clichés used here that have been used continuously throughout time. That also means it can be taken as either classic or hackneyed. For instance, in the beginning, Charlie ends up backing out of a diving competition. I wonder if that will factor into an emotional moment during the climax?
This I see as a negative side effect of the film’s focus on simplification. Character dynamics and moments become more sparknotes versions of themselves, such as parent-child arguments coming in a bit over the speed limit, or the token bully character whose constant usage I actively wish would die out. Tropes aren’t necessarily negative. They have been used over and over for a reason, after all. But that also makes a lot of the film easier to predict.
Not to mention, for all the stuff it improved from the Bayformers era, Bumblebee falls a little short in the visuals department. Now, that’s not to say this new style has no benefits; the Bayformers could often look incredibly cluttered, with overdesigned robots that made some fight scenes look like living junkyards throwing a rave. Here, things are noticeably cleaner; the transformations don’t have more moving parts than a modern gaming PC, allowing for some clarity in its action scenes.
However, those action scenes don’t look as visually striking. Because of its simplicity and relatively down to earth tone, many of its shots don’t carry as much energy or awe. Granted, that is probably to suit this movie’s focus on drama, so it’s more a matter of preference. Do you prefer the more striking but often overtaxing Bayformers style or the clearer yet slightly blander Bumblebee style? Personally, I was fine with the latter, but it did leave my inner child a bit hungry.
Despite all that, I still can’t say those elements stall out the film. That is because, for as clichéd as some of its moments can be, it has genuine heart behind it. You can tell all of the players involved are putting in their all. Not to mention, the tropes used for the character backgrounds, such as an awkward mechanic or a newly formed family, are all elements that are easy to be emotionally invested in.
With the aforementioned parent-child argument, I saw it coming a mile away and I did roll my eyes a bit. But I quickly stopped rolling them when I saw how much passion the actors were putting into those clichéd lines. Even a story that’s been told countless times can be interesting if the storyteller does a good job, and that is the case with Bumblebee.
I am looking at my final verdict, and I admit I may have been a bit more generous than usual with it. However, it’s difficult to get so strict with this movie when it’s so earnest. Would you criticize a child’s proud drawing down to its penstrokes or artistic influence, especially when that drawing is actually pretty good on its own? Bumblebee might not be a perfect movie, but it was more than sufficient to kickstart the new Transformers franchise, and that’s enough for me to enjoy it.
Bumblebee is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Bumblebee!