Taking what is essentially the kid-and-her-pet scenario that is as old as time and applying it to a sci-fi adventure story that acts as a prequel to director Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, Bumblebee succeeds because it relies not on acton and special effects but on characters and a sweet story about friendship, loss and finding your inner hero.
Borrowing a bit from E.T. in its finest moments, Bumblebee begins with the fall of Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, where the good-robot Autobots (including a cameo by leader Optimus Prime) are defending themselves against the bad-robot Decepticons (what else is new?). As the Autobots seem on the brink of losing the war, Optimus secretly sends Bee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to earth to scope out the possibility of the Autobots relocating there. It is key that the Decepticons don’t find out about earth, or all will be lost. Landing on earth, Bee is immediately attacked by some generic branch of the military, headed by Agent Burns (John Cena). Just as he’s about to be captured, two Decepticons (voiced quite effectively by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) out searching for Bumblebee intercede in the hopes that Bee will spill the beans on where the rest of the Transformers are.
They leave him a broken mess, transformed into a beaten-up VW Beetle (later incarnations of Bumblebee find him as a sporty yellow Camaro with black racing stripes) only to turn up some amount of time later in the junkyard of a man (Len Cariou) whose 18-year-old niece visits frequently because she likes restoring cars. A couple of points before we move on: the film is set in 1987, so the soundtrack is practically wall-to-wall classic tracks, leaning heavily on The Smiths, Duran Duran, Howard Jones—basically anything that would have appeared in a John Hughes movie at the time. (The Breakfast Club factors heavily into the story and Bumblebee’s understanding of human behavior.) Also, the young woman at the center of this story is Charlie (played by the great Hailee Steinfeld, currently having a hell of a holiday season between this and voicing Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), who is still struggling with the recent loss of her father and is entering a rebellious phase that worries her mother (Pamela Adlon) and current significant other Roy (Lenny Jacobson).
But in the junkyard, Charlie finds that Beetle and after a bit of tinkering, it comes to life as a scared, timid robot whose memory of what brought him there and who he is is lost, along with his ability to speak. The reason the Bumblebee character was always the most relatable of all the Transformers is that he wasn’t as showy as the rest of his robot pals. He’s only a couple feet taller than an adult human, and the cars he choses to turn into were approachable vehicles. And the time Charlie spends restoring and teaching Bumblebee (she also names him) is as much about healing her through this new friendship as it is getting Bee acclimated to earth’s wonders and dangers.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson does an exceptional job focusing on what makes both characters empathetic, leaving director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) a great deal to work with when building up this key bond. One of the key elements of their relationship is Charlie’s music collection, which Bee discovers can be sampled and used to string together sentences in hopes of opening up real lines of communication (installing a working radio into Bee also really helps in this endeavor).
Eventually, the outside world interferes, with Burns and his team searching for Bee, and even joining forces with the two Decepticons who pretend to want to share technology in order to help them in tracking down Bee. John Ortiz is on hand as a scientist much too eager to partner with alien life forms just for the chance to get close to them. All roads lead to a large radio tower where the Decepticons want to send a message to their overlords about the Autobots plan to converge on earth, and Bee must stop them before they do so (as all die-hard Transformers fans know, any victory in this arena will be short lived). There’s also a cute, early-stages potential romance for Charlie and a neighbor kid named Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) that doesn’t really go anywhere, but it also doesn’t get in the way of how good this movie is most of the time.
What the filmmakers here have done is make a Transformers movie that doesn’t feel gross with testosterone or the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator (i.e. children). Perhaps even more importantly, Bumblebee doesn’t bury us in effects shot and confusing action, instead opting to use the visuals in a way that enhances the story and ensuring the handful of action sequences make sense. There’s a sequence where Bee gets into Charlie’s family’s home and inadvertently destroys a great deal just by being a little too big for the space and not understanding his own spacial construct. It’s an endearing, funny moment that uses effects subtly and to convey Bee’s sense of confusion and growing panic.
Story-wise, I’m not sure it’s possible to make a sequel to this film with the same cast, but it’s the Bay-verse—anything is possible. I hope the filmmakers give it a shot and manage to hold onto the combination of sweetness and ramped-up action of Bumblebee. I almost can’t believe that a Transformers movie would turn into one of the finest character studies of the season.
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