For the record, I, much like many other critics, called the last “Transformers” film an “affront to cinema.” I also raised the possibility, however, that a good “Transformers” film exists in a parallel dimension. Judging by the heart and vigor that imbues every second of Travis Knight’s “Bumblebee” — notably, the first film in the franchise without Michael Bay in the director’s chair — it would seem that this hypothetical reality has merged with ours.
Or, more realistically, screenwriter Christina Hodson did what three men couldn’t — pen a movie with relatable characters buoyed by sincere emotional beats and a sense of humor that isn’t dependent on racist caricatures and undisguised misogyny, as has frequently been the case with previous “Transformers” films. Hodson reins in a franchise infamous for its ethos of excess, ditching universe-ending stakes for a simpler, infinitely more effective story.
Fleeing the destruction of his home planet Cybertron, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) crash-lands on Earth, seeking to build a secret base for his fellow Autobot warriors. He’s found by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an aspiring mechanic whose family has moved past her father’s death much faster than she has. As she and Bumblebee bond, however, they’re pursued by the militant, cartoonish Agent Burns (John Cena), who’s joined forces with two Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux).
As a prequel, “Bumblebee” basks in its 1980s setting, dropping the needle on tracks such as “Take On Me” and, in an homage to “The Breakfast Club,” “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” In this sense, the film wears its influences on its sleeve — it’s somewhat ironic that for a franchise that is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, its sixth film is the first to feel vaguely Spielbergian. “Bumblebee” has more in common with “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and Brad Bird’s “The Iron Giant” than any previous “Transformers” movie — at its core, the film tells the story of a girl and her best friend, who just happens to be an alien.
And, of course, the film’s nostalgia functions as a nod to the original animated “Transformers” television show, which extends to the streamlined, softer-edged design of the franchise’s original “Generation 1” aesthetic. Resultantly, one feels the filmmakers’ genuine love for the franchise, or at least, how they remembered it as youngsters. Far from being crude and vindictive, as in Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” film, this version of Bumblebee is endearing, playful and just a little bashful, since he’s out of his element.
With this in mind, “Bumblebee” steers clear of Bay’s sophomoric sensibilities, abandoning the third-act CGI smorgasbord of explosions that became a staple of the “Transformers” franchise. But sure, “Bumblebee” has its fair share of action, and Knight directs these sequences well.
Given that the film’s battles heavily feature CGI creations, Knight’s experience in animation — most notably with Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” — lends itself well to staging Bumblebee’s showdowns with Shatter and Dropkick. As with “Kubo,” the action in “Bumblebee” feels character-driven, starkly contrasting with the “Bayhem” of previous “Transformers” films. While “Bumblebee” will please moviegoers looking for spectacle — early scenes set on Cybertron should do the trick — the film keeps its characters at the center of its set pieces.
The film is all the better for its (relative) sense of restraint, allowing Charlie’s relationship with Bumblebee to be foregrounded instead of relying on relentless action. For once, the human characters in a “Transformers” film are more than audience placeholders. It certainly helps that Steinfeld has more charisma than previous franchise leads Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg. Moreover, unlike LaBeouf and Wahlberg, Steinfeld actually has chemistry with her co-stars. Her back-and-forth with Jorge Lendeborg Jr., who plays her romantic interest in “Bumblebee,” sweetens an already warmhearted film.
Ultimately, if studio executives learn anything from this film, it’s that hiring women like Hodson can only improve stale projects. With Hodson entering the DC Extended Universe by writing the upcoming “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” her future looks especially bright.
And so does the future of the “Transformers” franchise. Sequels were always in the cards, as “Transformers” is Paramount Pictures’ most surefire, profitable bet. But in a post-“Bumblebee” landscape, this might be the first time that such a certainty has been a good thing.
“Bumblebee” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.