The word “Transformers” has become synonymous with never-ending, money burning, ear bleeding blockbuster filmmaking. It a doormat that critics wipe their shoes on and a psycho ex-partner of millions of fans who just want to remember the good times. Here’s some good news: Michael Bay has finally stepped down off of his iron throne and handed the reigns over to Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight, making his live action debut. His film, a more intimate character piece about a girl and her car, feels like a deliberate middle finger to Bay’s operatic trash heaps. It’s made for people who don’t want to have migraines in the theater.
We find ourselves in 1987 as the Transformers make their first moves on earth. The girl in question is Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a grief stricken teenager on the hunt for a birthday car. She finds it in a beat up yellow bug who, wouldn’t you know it, is a wounded Autobot taking refuge from his enemies. As those two form an adorable bond, a Transformers movie looms in the background, with military agent Jack Burns (John Cena) forming an uneasy alliance with Decepticon soldiers who are on the hunt for the autobot fugitive.
Bumblebee is at its best when its focus is Charlie. While she initially is written with a tough exterior, Christina Hodson’s screenplay very cleverly calls the audience out for jumping to those negative assumptions about a female character who is in pain. From there, Steinfeld takes the reigns and delivers a winning performance that anchors the film. As we see the impact that her father’s tragic death left on her, we start to understand why she attaches herself so intensely to this strange creature. The two of them have wonderful chemistry together, especially as the film flips Bay’s talking through the radio gag into one of the key emotional beats. It gets even better when Jorge Lendeborg Jr. comes in as Memo, Charlie’s awkward neighbor who’s got a mean crush on her. There’s a nice rapport there and there are a number of moments where our expectations about the “nice guy who gets the girl” troupe are subverted. A couple cliches do rear their heads, namely a group of “mean girls” that feel ripped out of a cartoon, but they’re thankfully not central. This is largely a film about grief and what happens when a person is willing to open their heart again, and when it plays with those themes, it does it with a deft mix of humor and heart.
However, this is a Transformers movie, which means that a significant chunk of the film ends up being about the Decepticons and their plot to catch Bumblebee. Every beat of this subplot is contrived, and the leaps that the humans make to trust these robots in the first place are absurd. I found myself hoping that Cena, who has fun with his underwritten part, would blow them to smithereens before an action climax could muddle this nice film that I was enjoying very much.
Once we get down to the robot fighting, we’re back to business as usual. Now, I have a feeling that a lot of longtime transformers fans are going to find a lot to appreciate about the action beats here. The designs are simplified to look more like the original series, the pulled back camerawork ensures that we see every metal crunching hit, and there are a couple moments that are undeniably satisfying. However, as somebody who just cannot get into giant hunks of CGI banging into each other, it didn’t feel terribly different from the action sequences in Bay’s films. Significantly less obnoxious? Yes. Gripping? Not so much.
Against all odds, Bumblebee is a promising new beginning for the Transformers franchise. If they can continue with this more character driven approach and remove it completely from Bay’s continuity, they definitely could have something here. Knight asserts himself as a director to watch, but it’s Hodson’s screenplay and Steinfeld’s performance that stand out as the real heroes. Their work evolves and matures this material, taking a cliched story structure and making it genuinely funny and sweet. I’m certainly willing to wipe the slate clean, making this film – dare I say – transformative.