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I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Transformers anti-fan, but I’m not far off. While my generation grew up on Transformers when we were kids, I never understood the appeal—although to be fair, I’m not a huge fan of robots and mechas in general, so I’m sure that plays a part.
I watched Transformers when it came out, which I didn’t like, and then I gave Revenge of the Fallen a shot when it came out, which I regretted even more than the first one. Since then, I’ve swept the Transformers film franchise under the rug and haven’t seen a single one since.
But when I was stuck on a six-hour flight from PHL to LAX, Bumblebee was available as part of the in-flight entertainment, and I figured I’d try it out. Why not? I had time to kill. And you know what? It was actually pretty darn good. Not perfect, mind you, but it’s immediately clear that Bumblebee is a different kind of film from previous Transformers film, thanks to the fact that it was directed by the up-and-coming Travis Knight rather than the on-his-way-out Michael Bay.
Bumblebee is a coming-of-age story at heart, which is fitting for a Transformers film given that the franchise is meant for kids (or those who grew up with Transformers as kids). Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is a misunderstood teenager who’s still processing the grief of having lost her father just a few years ago, and she feels alone in the world and helpless.
And then along comes Bumblebee, an Autobot who was sent out from Cybertron (the home planet of the Autobots) to prepare Earth as a place of refuge for other exiled Autobots. He crash lands, broken, and is eventually repaired by Charlie (who is an auto mechanic prodigy), and that’s how they first meet. You can imagine the hijinks that ensue.
Again, Bumblebee is a story about Charlie’s inner journey toward grief recovery and acceptance and moving on from the past that chains her down, resulting in a quieter story than previous entries in the Transformers series—and the end product is all the better for it. Sure, there are CGI and action sequences that punctuate the film throughout, but they aren’t gratuitous, and they’re all the more important because there’s so much focus on characters in between those sequences.
And the CGI/action sequences are lovely, too. Gone are the frenetic, chaotic, impossible-to-see-what’s-happening edits of the usual Michael Bay style. The fights and chases in Bumblebee are just as action-packed, but more tightly edited with better choreography. You aren’t left bored to tears by repetitive 20-minute clashes, and instead each conflict has proper stakes on the line. I personally love the judo-style techniques used by Bumblebee in his fights—perfect for his small frame against the massive Decepticons.
Disclaimer: I watched Bumblebee on a smartphone, so the experience may be even better if watched on a proper TV with a proper sound system!
Bumblebee is quite the character as well. After losing his voice early in the first act, he can only resort to buzzy gibberish (hence the name “Bumblebee,” given to him by Charlie who thinks he sounds like one). But it isn’t his words but his facial expressions and body language that give him all the character he needs to come to life and endear himself to our hearts. It’s effective, and that’s why I’m willing to overlook the fact that Autobots apparently have such human facial expressions and emotions.
At the end of the day, Bumblebee is a simple story that doesn’t necessarily innovate, but it’s highly watchable and enjoyable thanks to the excellent performance by Hailee Steinfeld. She’s a sight to behold and truly sells her character on screen, and much of the film’s success can be attributed to her acting prowess.
My primary complaint about Bumblebee is that it tries to differentiate itself from past Transformers films but doesn’t commit enough. As such, we end up with a movie that feels like two distinct movies that have been stitched together: a quieter coming-of-age story about Charlie in the first half, and an action-packed save-the-world story in the second half, and there isn’t enough glue in between to make the transition as smooth as it could’ve been.
And I get it. As a Transformers film, it does need those action sequences. It can’t diverge too much from its foundation, otherwise it ceases to be a Transformers film. I’m not ragging on the film’s decision to be more character-driven and character-centric—which is the best decision it could’ve made, let’s be honest—but the execution of it. And it’s not like it was executed poorly; it just could’ve been better.
If you hated the previous Transformers, I highly recommend giving Bumblebee a try. It might be that you hate this one too—especially if you dislike young adult stories—but it’s different enough from past entries, and it stands well enough on its own as a standalone film. You don’t need to know anything about Transformers to enjoy this one, and dare I say that you may even enjoy it more the less you know.