Well, dammit. Bumblebee is actually really good. Let me explain why I find that so annoying:
I made the argument last year that if Hollywood is truly ever going to learn anything from its various failures in the age of IP certain franchises are going to have to crash and burn so hard as to be unrevivable. Divergent, for example, failing to even earn a TV movie finale is a good thing because it forces the people involved to actually stop and seriously examine what went wrong instead of simply plugging away and churning out more of the same with maybe some minor tweaks along the way. Otherwise, we’ll all be stuck in this world of middling franchises which keep going mostly thanks to China’s seemingly endless appetite for cinematic spectacle. Why even try something new when you can just constantly reboot or prequel an existing IP which zombie-like moviegoers keep supporting?
The Transformers franchise has been the primary offender in this category for years now. Starting in 2007, Michael Bay coughed up five rather ugly-looking and just wrong-headed odes to humanity’s apparent soft spot for watching robots fight each other even if we can’t tell the good guys from the bad. Actors like John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Hopkins, all of them in total paycheck mode, filtered through the various films as supporting players, and when primary star Shia LaBeouf imploded and burned all of his bridges he was replaced with a sleepwalking Mark Wahlberg and a soft reboot of the entire franchise. The result has been a steady decline and embarrassing franchise lows in domestic gross but skyrocketing numbers in China.
Thus, we’ve had a recurring PR circus following just about every Transformers movie where somebody in the cast or possibly Michael Bay himself apologizes for producing such shite and promises to do better next time but then later walks that back because, hey, not everyone hates these movies. Bay kept promising to step aside and let someone else direct the next one, yet either because no one actually wanted the gig or Bay couldn’t quite let go every 3 years, like clockwork, we’d get a Michael Bay-directed Transformers movie.
Bumblebee, a 1980s-set prequel and thus the second attempt at a soft reboot for the franchise in barely over a decade, is finally the moment when Bay steps aside. While still officially credited as a producer, he’s handed the real heavy-lifting to Laika founder and animation guru Travis Knight, making his live-action directing debut, and upcoming screenwriter Christina Hodson (Pacific Rim: Uprising and a whole slew of in-development projects). Paired with the multi-talented Hailee Steinfeld as their leading lady, the trio have combined to produce easily the best live-action Transformers movie ever.
OK. That’s not actually saying much. The bar, she be low. But there are three major blockbusters opening this weekend – Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Mary Poppins Returns. Of the three, Bumblebee easily has the highest RottenTomatoes score (93% vs. Aquaman’s 63% and MPR’s 77%), and having now seen all three I’d have to say I agree.
Faced with the challenge of dramatizing the exploits of a bunch of glorified toys from the 80s, Knight and Hodson chose to blatantly steal from the best – Spielberg, Cameron, Brad Bird – and offer up a rehash of E.T., T2, The Iron Giant where the emphasis is not on the robots but instead what the robots represent to the human characters. As with most of these kinds of narratives, Bumblebee is treated here as a metaphorical coping mechanism for a kid dealing with loss, and while hardly groundbreaking stuff it’s done exceptionally well.
The plot: Charlie (Steinfeld) is an 18-year-old struggling to move past the death of her father. He taught her how to fix cars, and when she’s not working one of those classic shitty teenager jobs at a frozen banana stand (insert Arrested Development joke) she tries to keep that connection to her dad going by finishing a total car rebuild job they started together. Her mother (Pamela Adlon) has moved on and already invited another nice, but dopey man into her life. Her younger brother is too obsessed with his karate classes to notice anything else in the world. So, it’s just Charlie alone with her old car and collection of The Smiths cassettes and torn rock band T-shirts.
Enter Bumblebee, who we learn via a prologue is actually kind of like an advanced scout sent from his home planet Cybertron to secure Earth as the new base of operations for the Autobots in their civil war with the Decepticons. Once on Earth, he loses his voice and memories and appears to Charlie as just an old clunker of a VW Beetle. When she accidentally wakes him up and causes him to transform, he instantly cowers in a corner like a traumatized rescue dog in desperate need of a heavy dose of TLC.
The familiar narrative then plays out mostly to expectations: she does as much as she can to fix what’s literally wrong with him. In return, he helps to fix the hole in her heart and get her to a point where she’ll finally open up to her mother about how sad she is and maybe eventually notice that boy (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) who keeps trying to ask her out.
Misleading trailers which seemed to promise a potential sexual Shape of Water situation aside, Charlie and Bumblebee’s relationship is sweet, heart-warming, and often hilarious. Scenes of her teaching Bumblebee – a nickname she gives him, btw – about popular music or how exactly to egg the house of a mean girl could have been the majority of the movie and I would have been happy.
Except, of course, there has to be a third-act CGI shoot-em-up, and it happens here thanks to two Decepticons (voiced with scene-stealing gusto by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) dispatched to Earth to dispose of Bumblebee and the human soldiers (led by John Cena) who naturally feel the desire to shoot first and ask questions later when they see giant, talking robots. Rock ‘em, sock ‘em fight scenes eventually give way to a ticking clock climax where both Bumblebee and Charlie have to save the day and the planet.
And it’s all…undeniably great. Knight’s background in animation clearly pays off in the form of the cleanest and easiest-to-follow action scenes in franchise history (again, low bar). Hodson’s focus on character and attempt to gender-switch a very Iron Giant/T2 kind of story results in a fresh enough spin on the familiar. If the message the world had been trying to send Transformers producers was “Can’t you at least give us a good Transformers movie?”, well, message received.
Who, then, am I to complain? To wish for the absolute death of the Transformers franchises ignores the basic economic realities at IP-poor Paramount Pictures. At long last, they wrestled this thing out of Michael Bay’s hands and gave it to people who could find the heart in the completely bonkers stories of outer space robots who transform into clearly human-designed vehicles for no good reason. In response to years of financial and creative decline, the Transformers franchise has offered up its leanest, most emotional, and most cost-effective film yet. If they can do it, no wonder Disney is now openly talking about rebooting Pirates of the Caribbean without Johnny Depp.
The irony in this case, however, is it might not actually work. Paramount’s only hope to save this franchise was to produce something transcendent, and while the critics are recognizing and celebrating the effort it remains to be seen if audiences will show up for Bumblebee. It’s going to take an awful lot of convincing for those who have been stung too many times or for those who don’t understand how Bumblebee relates to the other movies. Just to be clear, you don’t need to have seen any of the other Transformers movies to enjoy it. It’s probably better if you haven’t.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Believe the hype. Bumblebee is an absolute delight of family-friendly, blockbuster entertainment, repackaging elements of The Iron Giant, T2, Big Hero 6, and E.T. into a engaging tale of a girl and her robot.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The 80s Easter Eggs are too numerous to count. I’ll just say Back to the Future II fans will be pleased.
- There’s a whole entire side movie to be had just from depicting how in the world John Cena’s character constantly finds new vehicles off-screen after his last one is destroyed in a chase scene. Cena’s dogged pursuit of Bumblebee is sometimes improbable to the point of conjuring memories of Better Off Dead’s mailboy forever demanding his two dollars from John Cusack.
- SPOILER: Not unlike Jeff Goldblum’s daughter in The Lost World, Charlie’s unique gymnastic skill set comes into play in the finale. Never thought any other movie would go to that well again.
What’s your take on Bumblebee? Let me know in the comments.