The opening scene of Bumblebee plays out like a child’s fantasy: Brightly colored Autobots clash with the sinister Decepticons in a battle that feels like the cinematic realization of a little kid smashing his toys together. And it’s awesome.
It’s something that’s been missing from the progressively darker and grittier iterations of the Transformers movies, whose brand of “Bayhem” have prevented the films from being anything close to fun. Michael Bay loaded every frame of his Transformers movies with so much visual chaos that the senses become overwhelmed and, ultimately, dulled. But Bumblebee director Travis Knight peels back the layers of epic, hectic spectacle to find the warm, beating heart that the Transformers franchise has always been missing.
Bumblebee takes place 20 years before the events of the first Transformers in 1987, following the titular Autobot as he crash-lands into an unremarkable California beach town. Scared, damaged, and missing his memory, Bumblebee is discovered by a high school teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who befriends and coaches him on the ways of Earth. But their budding friendship is interrupted by the arrival of two Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), who team up with a Sector Seven led by the ruthless Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) to hunt down Bumblebee for his knowledge on Optimus Prime’s whereabouts.
The ’80s nostalgia is in full force in Bumblebee, which takes more than a little inspiration from the fantastical Spielbergian adventures of the era. A throwback movie in every sense of the word, Bumblebee hits all the familiar beats of the friendly alien movie while tossing in some John Hughes-inspired teen angst — all set to a blaring ’80s soundtrack that is maybe a too overeager to load every scene with a retro musical cue.
But Bumblebee is more than a few choice ’80s references and nods; Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson manage to capture the spirit of the era’s coming-of-age movies. Bumblebee feels like it emerged from the heyday of Amblin Entertainment’s ’80s catalogue, so full to the brim it is with heart and cheesy sincerity. A lot of that is sold by the fantastic performance from Steinfeld, whose endearing gearhead is the best human character to emerge out of the Transformers movies. In a franchise where the humans are little more than interchangeable stock characters, Steinfeld’s sulky social outcast is irreplaceable. The minute she’s introduced in a grungy Smiths T-shirt and messy hair while brushing her teeth to rock music, she’s instantly a fully realized character who the audience can connect with just as easily as the Autobot we’ve spent six movies with. Steinfeld is an assured actress who sells every funny and heartbreaking moment with gusto — without her, the movie wouldn’t work as well as it does, though Cena gives an entertainingly self-aware performance as the trigger-happy soldier bent on capturing his Moby Dick, Bumblebee. But Steinfeld pulls off a bigger achievement: she doesn’t just teach Bumblebee how to live on Earth, she teaches the audience how to love Transformers again.
But it’s not hard to love the Transformers who rock the vibrant Gen-1 designs of the toy line, further feeding into the whole nostalgic sheen of Bumblebee. Bumblebee, with his rotund, non-threatening design lends to the warm, family-friendly bend of the film, especially when he speaks in Dylan O’Brien‘s sprightly voice at the beginning. It’s not as jarring as you’d expect to hear Bumblebee speak, particularly when the Maze Runner star somehow manages to make the Autobot sound as cute as he looks.
Bumblebee is not without some random shocks of violence and crude humor, but it maintains the magic of its nostalgic approach. Sometimes a few nods will become a little too on-the-nose —like Solo, Bumblebee is strangely fixated on over-explaining certain aspects of its titular character’s personality (“You sound like a little bumblebee! Guess what I’ll call you!”) — but for the most part, Bumblebee doesn’t suffer from the prequel curse that befalls movies where you know the character comes out alive. The low stakes are given emotional heft because we care about these characters. Oh, there’s still massive CGI set pieces that may cause you to zone out for a little, of course, but now you actually care about the people in them, as opposed to simply singling out your favorite Transformer.
Bumblebee feels like the first Transformers movie to understand what the franchise is. No matter how militaristic, and bombastic, and oddly violent the Transformers movies get, at their core, they’re still based on a toy line. Unburdened by the convoluted mythology of the Transformers universe, Bumblebee taps into that core and makes a movie for the child in all of us who just wants to know what it’s like to become friends with one of the robot action figures we smashed together.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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