Ready for a Michael Bay-less Transformers universe? Because with Bumblebee, that’s exactly what we have, and it’s obvious from the get-go. While Bay’s trademark bombast and cynicism inform the previous five films, as over the top caustic and astringent his giant robot kerfuffles are, this prequel equally exaggerates on the other end of the spectrum—all gooey earnestness and near-oppressive optimism and goofiness. It vacillates between joyous and insufferable, and despite being a mixed bag, it’s easily the most I’ve enjoyed a Transformers movie to date.
Bumblebee’s target audience is clear. They already have all the nostalgia money from the generation that grew up with Cybertron’s favorite sons. But you know what? Those people have kids now, and they’re here for those dollars, too. This is by far the most earnest, heartfelt cynical cash-grab I’ve ever seen. It’s a half-hearted ‘80s teen melodrama with giant robots occasionally beating the crap out of each other that, true to form, functions essentially as a toy commercial.
You might as well call Bumblebee “’80s Reference: The Movie.” It’s one long mishmash of ill-fitting nods to the decade of excess. Set in 1987, the titular mute Transformer finds himself stranded on Earth, with a case of robo-amnesia, and on the run from a shadowy military agency led by John Cena’s Agent Burns—an agency that, though shady and covert in nature, only knows of Bumblebee’s existence because he crashes in the middle of a training exercise. Once there, Bee meets young outsider Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) and the two become BFFs and have adventures set to an endless, exhausting run of recognizable needle drops.
Everything that follows is the most base-level facsimile of the movies it apes, toned down for an audience of 12-year-olds, who are going to eat this up. Charlie is a loner with zero friends, coping with the trauma of losing her father, dealing with a mom (Pamela Adlon) who just doesn’t get her, and all the typical teen movie markers. For his part, Bumblebee is basically a shy, abused puppy to pat on the head and fawn over.
The story and character may be hokey and shallow—we’re talking After School Special style—but Steinfeld does her considerable best with the material. There’s not a whit or whiff of surprise to find, but she tugs just enough at the heartstrings and imbues Charlie with a sincerity and empathy that will hook many viewers, especially younger members of the audience who haven’t seen this narrative play out a million times.
Director Travis Knight also has a hand in selling the act and keeping things from becoming overly trite. Most known for his work with animation studio Laika—he directed Kubo and the Two Strings and worked on ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Coraline—he’s no stranger to infusing a movie with sincere emotional depth, a trait that serves Bumblebee well. What could ring saccharine mostly passes muster thanks entirely to Knight and Steinfeld.
But you’re not here for an adorable tale of unlikely friendship, mismatched weirdos becoming besties, or a fish-out-of-water story about a simpleton robot car learning to toilet paper a house. No, you came for high-energy robot versus robot action, and on that front, Bumblebee does not disappoint. Knight’s animation background and understanding of the form also benefit the film.
From the very first moment—an Autobot/Decepticon brawl on Cybertron—it’s clear this is not a Michael Bay movie. The action in Bumblebee is much less frenetic, jarring, and synapse pummeling than in previous the Transformers. The camera still soars and snaps, but gone are the ubiquitous lightning-quick, split-second cuts that play like a caffeine-addled flip book. Even the character design fixes some of the issues I have with previous installments—instead of an incoherent CGI blur, when the Transformers transform, it makes visual sense. People who take issue with Michael Bay’s typical aesthetic will find this a nice respite. Knight and company even found a way to explode humans in the gooiest way possible without using blood, thus maintaining the all-important PG-13 rating.
Overall, Bumblebee is a fun enough, but wildly uneven robot throw down. It practically nudges you in the ribs, reminding you of the era, and the fan service grows eye-rolling over time. The villains are either generic, personality-free Decepticons or low-rent stock military baddies—Cena has moments where his humor shines through, but the rest is bland and toothless. Even Charlie is all over the place. She wakes up listening to The Smiths and wearing an Elvis Costello shirt, then moves to Bon Jovi to Motorhead to Rick Astley—I’m not saying characters can’t have eclectic tastes, but for a movie that uses cultural references as character development shorthand, it’s like the script never knows who she is from scene to scene.
Bumblebee never quite finds the right balance. It’s intentionally super cheesy and silly, sometimes in a warm, heartfelt way, but other times in an obnoxious, cringing way. It’s cute and bubbly and will play well with the intended audience, but there’s not much more substance than that. [Grade: C+/B-]