Michael Bay’s Transformers series is probably the worst blockbuster franchise of all time. I don’t mean that as hyperbole either. I hate those films, but so do a lot of other people. They’re constantly ravaged by critics and as the diminishing box office returns have shown, even audiences are getting sick of it. With 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight being one of the worst films of the year by introducing King Arthur into the Transformers canon, there was literally nowhere to go for this series except back to the drawing board. So, what better (or worse) idea than to softly reboot the series with a prequel about Bumblebee? 

On their home world of Cyberton, the robotic race the Autobots are at war against opposing robotic race the Decepticons. As Cybertron falls, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders scout B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) to head to Earth and await other Autobot survivors. When B-127 lands on Earth, he’s pursed by the military and Decepticon forces, causing him to hide by disguising himself as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. He eventually finds himself in the care of car enthusiast Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teenager still grieving over her father’s death. When she discovers B-127 is actually a transformer and is being hunted, she forms a friendship with the Autobot to protect him, naming him Bumblebee

Everybody thought this idea was awful, but there was one catch: Michael Bay wasn’t directing! He of course stuck around as producer, but he seemed to leave the reigns completely to director Travis Knight, the very talented head of Laika Studios, who previously directed Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight has an excellent eye for animation, which there’s a lot of here, with CGI robot battles, and the opening scene that’s basically an animated film. It all looks absolutely stunning, though, my immersion never broken by the flawless effects. When Bumblebee and the other Transformers interact with humans, it’s as seamless as it was in Bay’s films. The big difference here is that there’s some actual personality to be found here. The designs of the robot are fantastic, each having their own distinct features, with loads of creative ways they played with the transformations. When they fight, the action is clear and you actually know what’s going on, as opposed to the Bayformers films, where it’s just a hunk of messy junk that doesn’t make any sense. 

Knight also excels at having heart and soul in his stories, which Bumblebee has more of than the previous five Transformers films combined. It shows that you don’t need the charismatic Shia Labeouf to carry your film, nor Mark Wahlberg to desperately try. Hailee Steinfeld is an excellent actress who more than carries the film, but it helped her that the story was simple. Still, she has excellent chemistry with Bumblebee and interacts with him believably. I’ve always commended actors who can believably act like something like a gigantic robot is with them, when it’s actually just a ball on a stick. She makes every dramatic moment count, elevating every scene, especially the cheesy ones with her family. The main heart and soul is her relationship with Bumblebee, which felt very sweet and genuine, especially since he acts as a sort of surrogate father for her deceased dad. It made the eventual climax and resolution genuinely emotional. 

However, even though the heart and soul was finally there for once, I felt like the narrative was constantly held back by the mediocre plotting and lack of development with the side characters and plotlines. The narrative is incredibly simple, which was welcome for once in this needlessly convoluted series, but it felt way too predictable and by the numbers. I called pretty much every twist and story beat and besides the main emotional core with Charlie, Bumblebee, and her dad, there was nothing to latch onto. The writing was so cliché and cheesy at times that it honestly felt like a terrible 80’s adventure movie, complete with a white middle-class family in an intense car chase while driving a station wagon. I do admit, though, that old school tone was part of the film’s charm. John Cena’s military man is ripped right out of an 80’s cartoon, but he’s great, totally playing up his macho military persona, but with a lot of humor behind it. He gets the funniest line in the movie too. “She would really trust these guys? I mean, they literally call themselves Decepticons.” With this and Blockers, he’s proved himself to be quite the comic actor. I can’t wait to see him in more. We should also all consider ourselves lucky that we’re not subjected to Michael Bay’s horrendous brand of childish comedy this time around.

It’s definitely a case of “it’s not really saying much”, but Bumblebee is probably the best Transformers film to date, and it doesn’t even have that word in the title! With Michael Bay allowing someone with a different kind of talent and way of filmmaking to take over, we received something much more restrained and smaller in scope, but far more emotionally resonant than ever before. I never thought I would actually be emotionally invested in the outcome of a Transformers film, but with the right filmmakers, I guess anything is possible.


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