Walking into the theater to see BUMBLEBEE, I was mad at myself, mad for getting suckered in again. Every time I thought I was dunzo with this franchise, out comes a snazzy trailer to hook me back in, and I'd go, "Maybe this is the good one."
But, yes, Virginia, this is the good one. I feel that BUMBLEBEE needs to be a box office win if we want more of this sort of quality storytelling in the Transformers franchise, if we want Michael Bay, that awful bogeyman, to keep on keeping his hands off. Thank goodness for new director, Travis Knight, who directed the fantastic animated KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and who once played center for the L.A. Lakers. Okay, that was probably a different Travis Knight. But BUMBLEBEE is a triumph, and maybe that's not saying much, given that the bar's been set so low. But the difference between it and the other five movies is just simply, um, Bay and Knight. So sorry.
Bay always had a knack for producing visual spectacles. He sucked at storytelling. What Knight does so smartly is he reduces the scope of the narrative to a more intimate level. In BUMBLEBEE, the jeopardy is kept localized to a small Cali town. And want to know something screwy? Knight puts in the time to insert character work. How crazy is that? Hailee Steinfeld does in one movie what Shia LaBeouf was hard pressed to do in three movies, which is make his character engaging enough that viewers become invested. Hailee's character, Charlie, forms a connection with Bumblebee that is more genuine and emotional than any of the relationships built up by the characters in the preceding five installments, and this includes Sam Witwicky.
Hailee plays Charlie Watson who mucks around in the coastal town of Brighton Falls, somewhere near San Fran. It's the year 1987, and Charlie is one of those teens that other teens don't want to hang with. She's surly and odd and keeps to herself. Charlie misses her dad so much. She resents her mom for having moved on with a new beau in her life.
She's having a very rough 18th birthday. She wants a car so bad; she's that desperate to be more independent. She hangs out at this junkyard where her car mechanic skills are appreciated. She's pretty good. She's got a good enough in with the crusty proprietor that, for her birthday, he lets her have that busted-up yellow bug she found rusting away under some tarp. This is how Charlie met Bumblebee.
Is this movie perfect? No, son, it's got flaws. Some cringe-worthy melodrama. A dispensable love interest. Logical disconnects provided by government figures whose decisions don't make sense and are there merely to advance the plot. A John Cena whose one-note acting had me believing he thinks he's still in a Michael Bay movie. John Cena plays a military heavy who, to give him his propers, does end up with the movie's best line.
If you're a fan of the original cartoon, you'd best be geeking out at how this movie keeps faith with the cartoon's visual aesthetic and sound. BUMBLEBEE returns to the characters' classic look. I love it that Bee goes around in his original Volkswagen Beetle form. I like how clean the Autobots and Decepticons look, their skirmishes no longer a confusion of indistinguishable robot body parts. This also renders the action beats easier to track.
So, the action's terrific, no worries. The conflict is generated by Bumblebee's being a fugitive on Earth, charged by Optimus with safeguarding our blue marble until the rest of the Autobots arrive. Not that I gave a what about that. I was more caught up in Charlie and Bee's interplay. A few negligible side stories about other characters are tossed in, but, mostly, there's incredible focus on our two main characters. Yep, no one's trying to be subtle with the IRON GIANT/E.T. parallels, but no one's salty about that because Charlie and Bee's story is executed so well, and we instantly care about their friendship and their safety. The dynamics between them just pop. And if I can add one more parallel, there's an element of John Hughes here, as well. Charlie could pass for a prototypical Hughes teenager, misunderstood and awkward and lonely and desperately seeking to connect. Hailee inhabits this role so naturally.
4.5 out of 5 stars for this one. It goes all in, in capturing the 1980s zeitgeist. It drops so many period-appropriate pop culture references. Prepare for an awesome bombardment of the 1980s soundtrack. Folks wonder if BUMBLETEE ties into the continuity of the first five movies, and, sadly, it's lookin' like yes. But it's still not too late to go the route of the latest HALLOWEEN movie. It's a potent sequel that asks you to ignore all the other HALLOWEEN sequels and to keep only the original as canon. Maybe we can do that here. There has to be a world where Michael Bay never laid hands on this franchise.