On the run in the year of 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie, on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. (from IMDb)
In 2007, Michael Bay made many children of the 80's dreams come true by making The Transformers come to life on the big screen. The animated TV series, which was based on (and designed to sell) a popular robot toyline, ran from 1984 to 1987, spawning an infamous 1986 animated feature film, which killed off the entire original cast for the purpose of introducing a new toyline. Bay's 2007 film inserted the "robots in disguise" into the real world, using photorealistic CGI and real vehicles to ground it in reality. However, he also added lots of profanity, violence and even sexual content, making a film about a toyline more geared towards adults than children (even though he changed what original fans--who were now adults--loved about the series). The 2007 film spawned four sequels (you read that right), for a total of five films, with each subsequent film declining in quality. In fact, the dismal reception and performance of 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight pretty much ended that series of films (well, so it seems, anyway). A prequel spinoff film about the beloved yellow Camaro, Bumblebee, was announced as part of an expanding Transformers universe, but it may be too much too late to save the fanbase from burnout.
Michael Bay did one major thing right for his Transformers films: the action. The animated vehicle transformations are still breathtaking to behold, and I'll never forget how it felt sitting in the theater 11-and-a-half years ago watching it for the first time. But Bay did oh so much wrong with the series by progressively making them more vulgar, devoid of sense and story, and just so amazingly poor. The series just couldn't handle his ego on display in full, and I couldn't wait for him to take his hands off the franchise. Thankfully, five films and over a decade later, someone else has taken the reins for at least one film, and it seems to be the recipient of much rejoicing because of it. (Seriously, Paramount, the evidence is obvious.) Travis Knight, who helmed the animated film Kubo and the Two String, and was part of the Animation Department of movies like ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, brings a reverent homage to the original cartoon series, as well as not entirely throwing out Bay's character direction. While Bumblebee was originally announced as a spin-off, it feels much more like a course-correction. It cherry-picks things from the Bay films and throws out the rest. It tells of what Bumblebee was doing on Earth before the 2007 film, including how he lost his voice and learned to talk through the car radio (although it seems harder to repair than it was at the end of the 2007 Transformers), but reboots the Cybertron history, character design, and even Earth designs of the Transformers. The Cybertron designs of the characters are even more fantastically inspired by the original cartoon. In fact, Bumblebee opens on Cybertron, showing a quick glimpse of the famed Autobot / Decepticon war, with calls back to most of the fan favorite characters--I felt like a little kid again watching that sequence. It was glorious.
Bumblebee takes place in 1987, which is a fun and interesting way to not only serve as a prequel to Bay's films, but to honor the original series' origin. Even Bumblebee gets to be the Volkswagen bug he was originally designed as. Interestingly enough, the cartoon series ended in 1987, so it makes me wonder if this was a conscious effort to kind of nod to following the series with this new take on the characters. It's so intriguing, though, that Knight has chosen to reimagine the Cybertron world. It does have the look and feel of the War for Cybertron video game cut scenes, but obviously with higher budget special effects, yet it just perfectly recaptures some of the magic of the original series. It's the Transformers movie we fans have been waiting for... even if it's only just a couple scenes. Peter Cullen even returns to voice Optimus Prime in a couple moments, and while it feels a hair like a tease, there's some hope at the end of the film that we could get more Optimus in the future (the true Optimus). I'd kind of love to see an all-animated Optimus origin story or something (from back when he was Orion Pax, to becoming Optimus Prime). The experiment of singling out Bumblebee for a standalone story and making him a car that a girl owns was a risky move, but it proves to work here. However, it's not a story you can easily make a sequel to, so I'm curious where things could go from here. But I can honestly say I'd be happy to see more movies with this look and feel, even if it means completely ignoring Bay's films going forward. I think we're more than ready for a hard reboot. The fact we have 80s Optimus in this film is something I think most fans have been longing for. (We'd love to see more of this!)
I thought Hailee Stanfield was an interesting casting choice for the lead human character in Bumblebee. She's a great young actress, who hit one out of the park in the True Grit remake several years ago, so I figured she could carry a film like this -- and she does. In this movie, the 22-year-old actress plays Charlie, a 17-year-old on the brink of turning 18 who is struggling with the loss of her father to a heart attack, and is having trouble moving on in life. She's lost her passion for the things she's loved, and she hates that her mother has moved on with her own life, with her now living with a man named Ron (it's not specified whether they're married or not, but I got the impression they're not). It's the 80s, so there are no cellphones yet, and the family is making due with humble living. When Charlie discovers and gains possession of Bumblebee, the Autobot had been previously damaged and lost his memory, frozen in Volkswagen Beetle disguise form until Charlie fixes him up a bit and accidentally reactivates him. The relationship the two share is so endearing; they both are exactly what the other needs, and it's amazing how much emotion their bond evokes. It's definitely something that Bay's take on Sam and Bumblebee lacked. They were a bit more like buddies, where you could really tell Charlie and Bee love each other.
Not everything quite glitters in Bumblebee, though. While it's safe to say this film is leaps and bounds above recent Transformers outings, there are still some bumpy aspects to the film. While not enough to really drag the film down, the side characters aren't great. Charlie's mom and Ron seem like normal, everyday parents, but they're also kind of corny or cartoony. It's nowhere near as bad as Sam's over-the-top parents, but they're still given too much screentime. Same goes for her brother (step-brother?), Otis. He's okay, but he's also not very likeable or interesting. Charlie's family seem to exist to solely to provide tension and opposition for Charlie, but not in a compelling way. And when the story tries to redeem them and involve them in the film's action near the end, it doesn't fit. Also, her peer characters--mostly antagonistic ones--are caricatures at best. Even the local guy Memo (really? Memo?) who likes Charlie is an odd duck. Ironically, while Bumblebee doesn't overly sexualize young women like Bay's films did, this film goes out of its way to have several teen boys take their shirts off to show off their physiques. It's one of those "know your audience" conundrums where it feels like it's meant for the wrong target audience, but Bay had that same problem with how he handled showing pretty girls on screen. (Maybe it's just because the film was written by a woman--Christina Hodson--I don't know, but it seems like a really odd choice.) Whatever the case, objectification still seems like an unnecessary problem in these films. Lastly, one of the story beats is borderline cringe-worthy at the end (I even heard someone in the theater say out loud, "Are you serious?"). I get that it's part of the evolution of a character, to show how far they've come, but it doesn't make the moment any less corny. Again, none of these complaints ruin the film by any means, but they do hold it back from being greater just a little. Granted, most teen-driven movies in the 80's had these kinds of elements, so if the film team were really trying to emulate it, they succeeded.
The content in Bumblebee is the most tame of any of the modern day Transformers films. However, there's still close to thirty uses of God's name as an exclamation, mostly as "Oh my G-d," and at least two uses of the "S" word clearly (there may have been a third earlier in the film when an explosion tosses Cena's characters' men around). Both Cena and Hailee say the other two pronounced uses of the "S" word in the film (both within a couple minutes of each other, too). Other language is mostly "h*ll" and "d*mn," with the addition of 1 use of "*ss" and 1 use of Jesus's name by Charlie's mother. There is a little bit of blood in a couple scenes, mostly just from some scrapes. Cena's character has a significant cut down the side of his face that's pretty bloody early on in the movie. For the rest of the movie, we see it's become a scar. Another character gets hurt from being thrown from an explosion, and we see that his arm is a bit bloody and scraped. Later, we see their arm in a sling. Charlie has some scrapes and bruises on her face as well. The two worst moments for younger viewers, however, are when a Decepticon blasts two human characters with its arm cannon, causing them to burst into a spray of clear goop (it reminded me of the bug exploding at the end of the first Men In Black). It's not gruesome, but any young one sensitive to the concept will be startled. The first victim is a miscellaneous character (no one important to the story), while the second one is a minor side character. The rest of the violence involves robots fighting robots or blowing up military vehicles. Some of the scenes are a bit intense, like when one Decepticon kills an Autobot by slicing him in half vertically. Finally, there isn't really much by way of sexual content, but a couple scenes show teenage boys taking off their shirts to expose their muscular builds. The first time happens after Charlie accidentally spills sodas on a guy she likes; the next time is when she asks a new male friend to take off his shirt so she can use it as a blindfold, and the last time is when the first guy strips down to his shorts to cliff jump. There's quite a bit of emotional weight this time around--from Charlie dealing with the loss of her father, to trying to get by, dealing with peer bullying, and even Bee getting beaten up to near death a couple times. Overall, though, the content is much lighter in comparison to the other films.
Bumblebee is a finally a big step in the right direction for Transformers adventures on the big screen. It plays out like a classic 80s film, it's loaded with a lot of heart, and it's fun and exciting. (And its repurpose of the "You Got the Touch" song from the 1986 film was greatly appreciated.) It's hardly perfect, though, as some of the side characters still feel like cartoon characters (and not in a good way), but for the most part, it's the closest thing to getting a live action Transformers film right thus far, and further proof we just really needed Michael Bay to hand over the reins to someone else. Hopefully there's more solid Transformers adventures to come soon!- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/27/18)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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