FIVE ‘Transformer’ movies were made from 2007 to 2017, all directed by Michael Bay. They were all critically-panned but still made lots of money. We now have a new Transformer movie, “Bumblebee”, directed by Travis Knight of the acclaimed animated flick, “Kubo and the Two Strings”, in his first live action film. This is still produced by Michael Bay, but it’s definitely the one with the most heart of all the Transformer flicks which are mostly robot versus robot carnage.
“Bumblebee” is a prequel and set in 1987. It starts in Cybertron, the home of the warring robots, the Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons. Optimus sends his Autobots to different places in the universe to establish future bases. Bumblebee is sent to our planet, Earth, with the aim of also protecting it from the Decepticons.
Upon his landing, he is attacked right away by a platoon of soldiers led by John Cena who orders that he be hunted and destroyed. As he tries to escape away from them, two bigger Decepticon robots who are pursuing him also apprehend him (voices by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) to ask him where Optimus is hiding.
He fights back, but they are able to damage his memory and also his voice box so he can no longer talk. He shuts himself down and disguises himself as a yellow Volkswagen beetle ala-Disney’s the Love Bug.
We then meet a human character, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit” and “Edge of Seventeen”), an 18-year-old who’s a social outcast still grieving from the untimely death of her dad from heart attack. She’s now somewhat alienated from her mom who has found a new boyfriend. She wants to have her own car and, in a junk yard, she finds the piece of scrap that Bumblebee is.
She is able to make the car run again and takes it home. While tinkering with it in their garage, Bumblee transforms into a robot and, although Charlie is initially aghast, this will be the start of a beautiful friendship. Charlie is a former driver who has lost her confidence and she is oppressed by mean girls in school. She gives the robot the name Bumblebee and he becomes the trusted confidante she needs.
But the Decepticons continue to look for Bumblebee and their friendship will be put to a big test. In the past Transformer flicks, the human characters are not that sympathetic, like Shia LeBeouf from movies 1 to 3 and Mark Wahlberg in movies 4 & 5. Here, Charlie comes out as a real, relatable person and you can really believe in the friendship that develops between her and the gentle giant that Bumblebee is.
Their friendship becomes the film’s central driving force and reminds you of similar friendships between humans and aliens in “E.T.”, “The Iron Giant” and “Starman”, an element missing in the Michael Bay movies. But since this is still a Transformer movie, you can still expect the same kind of fierce fighting between violent robots.
The production design is first rate. The 80s setting will make kid viewers then feel the nostalgia of the Transformers, harkening back to the time when fans of the Autobots were first discovering them as Robots in Disguise. And since it’s set in the 80s, there are no cellphones, no internet and TV sets look primitive compared to what we have now.
We hear vintage songs from Tears for Fear, The Smiths, Simple Minds, etc. The movie is paced briskly as an action thriller with elements of family drama, fantasy and a strong buddy flavor between Charlie and Bumblebee.
Hailee Steinfeld gives a sympathetic performance as Charlie and it becomes even more amazing when you consider that her co-star is actually all CGI and she’s registering all her emotions on a green screen. She does it all very convincingly.
She’s given good human support by Jorge Lendeborgh as her neighbor who has a crush on her and helps her with Bumblebee. John Cena also does well in his supporting role as the army soldier who initially sides with the Decepticons but later on realizes his mistake and makes amends.