“Bumblebee” is a prequel and soft reboot to the live-action “Transformers” films, and the sixth film overall in the franchise. While the previous installments had no shortage of showy, effects-driven action, this film marks a new direction for the movies that reinvigorates the series with a familiar but fresh tone that’s a welcome change for the future.
The film sees the title character (voice of Dylan O’Brien) come to Earth in the year 1987, under the orders of Autobot Commander Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen). Landing in a small town near San Francisco, California, Bumblebee clashes with the aggressive Decepticon “triple-changer” Blitzwing (voice of David Sobolov) as he tries to not only elude the Decepticon spies Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux) and Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett), but also a group of Sector 7 agents led by the paranoid Jack Burns (John Cena). All of this takes place in a fantastic new live-action take on the franchise made for fans of 1980s Transformers by a fan of 1980s Transformers.
Though previous director Michael Bay still retains a role as one of the producers, this time directing duties are given to Travis Knight (“Kubo of the Two Strings”). Rather than increasingly convoluted plots and bizarre MacGuffins that the previous five films depended on, the robot action ties into a coming of age story centered around a young woman named Charlie. Hailee Steinfeld (the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version of “True Grit”) delivers a performance that is more like an actual person coming into contact with an alien robot than previous films. Rather than mere eye candy, Charlie’s story is driven by her eighteenth birthday as well as coming to terms with the death of her father prior to the film’s events. In the vein of Brad Bird’s gem “The Iron Giant,” Knight directs a script from Christina Hodson that is a 114-minute love letter to the original Transformers and to 1980s pop culture as a whole. Explosive action set pieces are combined with what’s easily the best story and characterization the live-action films have ever seen.
On a $100 million budget, the visual spectacle retains the “Bayhem” of the previous films while also infusing it with a new flair that would not be out of place in countless other 1980s blockbusters. The robot designs combine the style of the original cartoon and action figures with the live-action films, with flourishes from other modern “Transformers” TV series and the “War for Cybertron” video games. The action, story and characterization draw influence from the 1980s filmography of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas; Robert Zemeckis and John Hughes alike. The soundtrack is rife with ‘80s music including everything from the Smiths to “The Touch” by Stan Bush (recalling “The Transformers: The Movie” from 1986).
Overall, “Bumblebee” is a significant improvement over the previous live-action “Transformers” movies; and a strong film on its own merit. Whatever Hasbro and Paramount decide to do next for the series, it’s clear that much like a banged-up old Volkswagen; there is more to this film than meets the eye.
Verdict: 5 Stars Out of 5
Review by Steven Pryor
At A Glance:
Directed by Travis Knight (Based on Hasbro’s Transformers Action Figures)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker and Stephen Schneider with Peter Cullen, Dylan O’Brien, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett and David Sobolov