Michael Bay’s five loud, punishing Transformers movies have set the bar so low for the franchise that the pleasant, and mildly entertaining, Bumblebee represents a significant step up. Written by Christina Hodson and directed by Travis Knight, the prequel is largely predictable and cheesy, but it’s also straightforward and upbeat, with likable characters and a bright, streamlined visual style. Hodson and Knight accomplish what Bay never managed by making these hulking, alien robots (or at least one of them) worth caring about.
They also create a human protagonist far more soulful and sympathetic than the previous lead characters played by Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg. Hailee Steinfeld is Charlie Watson, an 18-year-old tomboy misfit in 1987 suburban San Francisco, who’s still reeling from her father’s unexpected death and her mother’s new relationship with an affable doofus. Charlie spends her free time tinkering with old cars, and when she comes across what looks like a non-functioning Volkswagen Beetle in a scrap yard, she set outs to fix it up so she can finally have some wheels of her own.
That Beetle is, of course, Bumblebee, the fan-favorite Autobot who’s fled the war on his home planet Cybertron in hopes of escaping the wrath of the Decepticons on Earth. The movie lays out the backstory in a CGI-filled prologue featuring a bunch of familiar Transformers characters, including Optimus Prime (voiced, as always, by Peter Cullen). It provides the requisite fan service but opens the movie on the wrong foot, setting the stage for yet another chaotic assault of giant-robot battles. Although Knight does deliver some of those battles, the heart of the film isn’t massive robots pounding on each other; it’s the tender relationship that develops between Charlie and Bumblebee.
Before they meet, Bumblebee faces off against an elite military unit led by Jack Burns (John Cena), who then devotes his career to tracking down and eliminating Transformers. He’s not the only one looking for Bumblebee, however: Decepticon trackers Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) have pursued him from Cybertron, determined to wipe out the rest of the Autobots.
Because of damage to his vocal circuits and his memory core, Bumblebee is a bit like a scared puppy when Charlie first discovers him, unable to communicate or to understand this strange, new world. Charlie helps him to evade capture (at least for a little while), and he helps her to build confidence. Knight leans into the nostalgic style, with a full-on “greatest hits of the ’80s” soundtrack (including Stan Bush’s Transformers anthem “The Touch”), a slobs-vs.-snobs subplot pitting Charlie against her popular classmates, and explicit references to movies like Heathers and The Breakfast Club (Bumblebee adopts Judd Nelson’s signature fist pump).
The Transformers characters (particularly new additions Shatter and Dropkick) even look more like the versions from the ’80s cartoon series. Knight’s background is in animation, as the head of stop-motion animation studio Laika and the director of its lovely Kubo and the Two Strings, and he brings some of that care and patience to his live-action debut. As she’s proved in movies like True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, Steinfeld is great at playing determined, charismatic teens, and Charlie is smart, funny and easy to root for. She has a sweet relationship with her smitten neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and even her disapproving family members are more clueless than antagonistic.
The movie features such a charming coming-of-age story that it’s sort of a shame it has to incorporate so much Transformers mythology, and the familiar scenes of Decepticons scheming with unscrupulous military officials almost always drag down the movie. At the same time, Hodson and Knight leave most of the Transformers characters behind following the Cybertron-set prologue, and when Bumblebee battles Shatter and Dropkick, it’s always clear who’s fighting whom, and what they’re doing, something Bay rarely conveyed in his cluttered action sequences.
Knight isn’t shy about showing his influences, from Weird Science and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, but he mostly stays on the right side of the line between homage and rip-off. There isn’t anything particularly original about Bumblebee, but its synthesis of classic influences is part of its charm, and unlike Bay’s movies, it isn’t constantly yelling at the audience to get pumped up.
Eventually the filmmakers have to leave behind low-key character development to stage a big, climactic brawl, but even then, they’re able to tie Charlie’s pivotal action moment to a painful memory from her past. It’s the kind of simple, direct (and totally hokey) storytelling that plenty of blockbusters rely on. For a Transformers movie, though, it qualifies as a major accomplishment.
Directed by Travis Knight from a script by Christina Hodson, Bumblebee stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Abby Quinn, Rachel Crow, Ricardo Hoyos and Gracie Dzienny. The film opens Friday nationwide.