Ok, we’re not sure, exactly, how to say this. It’s, um … well … right, fine [deep breath]. We’ll just say it.
So Bumblebee is a spin-off of the Transformers series, those Michael Bay movies of sound and fury and volume and lukewarm metal-on-metal action that are based on a line of toys, because cinema. You probably remember him somewhere within the haze of your post–Transformers-movies-screening memories, as very few human beings can recall much from those trainwreck blockbusters about good ‘bots and bad ‘bots, cars and jets, the fate of the world (we think?), etc. He’s the one who’s yellow and black, hence the name. Good friend of Optimus Prime. Hates Decepticons. Turns into a bitchin’ Camaro.
And the movie … it’s good. Not just “not bad.” It’s actually good.
Imagine if John Hughes made a Transformers movie. Or: Think E.T., but with auto parts. Or, possibly: The Iron Giant, stuck in a world where only ’80s action movies and vintage teen-angst movies exist. Or — and here’s where things admittedly get weird — an extension of a franchise not known for anything besides “big robots make boom,” only one with personality, wit, tenderness, imagination, emotional grounding, performances that don’t get drowned out by din and a soundtrack that favors The Smiths over Imagine Dragons.
We know, it’s a lot to process. Feel free to take a minute.
It starts off the way you’d expect, with a free-for-all battle on the planet of Cybertron and lots of CGI action, the over-the-top heroic voices of the Autobots and the aural mustache-twirling of the Decepticons, all of the usual chaos. B-127, a.k.a. Bumblebee, is sent to Earth to protect us. Once he arrives on our big blue marble circa 1987, touching down in the middle of a paintball game run by one Agent Burns (John Cena), our hero finds himself caught between a suspicious U.S. military and some metallic bad guys who’ve tracked him down. Some clanging fisticuffs and an explosion or three occur. Bumblebee’s voicebox is destroyed. Before he powers down, injured and weak, he spots a 1967 V.W. Beetle — the original B.B. vehicle from the Saturday morning cartoons — and shape-shifts appropriately.
What happens next is shocking: a genuine, honest-to-Optimus human-based drama. Enter Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, going way above and beyond the call of duty), a misfit with a chip on her shoulder, some serious air-drumming chops and an endless supply of band t-shirts. She has to deal with the usual teenager problems circa the end of the Reagan Era: a shitty summer job at Hot Dog on a Stick, a bunch of stuck-up rich snobs making her feel like trash, a home life that sucks, a desperate need for a car. Her off hours are spent working on a car that she and her late dad were trying to restore, or searching the local auto yard for spare parts. She discovers a beat-up, yellow Volkswagen. She starts it up and drives it home. One transformation later, Charlie has a large, mute mecha-amnesiac in her garage and we have a good old-fashioned a-girl-and-her-robot-pal tale on our hands.
And that’s what the bulk of Bumblebee is, more or less: an ’80s coming-of-age story that just happens to have a Transformer in it. Yes, a couple of villains show up, blessed with the names Dropkick and Shatter — and the voices of Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux — who convince the Military Industrial Complex that they can help find this intergalactic fugitive if we just give them access to our satellite systems. What could go wrong there? (“They’re called Decepticons,” Cena tells his high-ranking superiors. “Does that not seem like a red flag?”) It’s going to include some car chases and end with a big rock-’em-sock-’em robots climax. Shit’s going to occasionally get blown up real good.
But what director Travis Knight (the animator behind 2016’s extraordinary Kubo and the Two Strings) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (the sole scripter here, which means this spin-off has 1/64th of the franchise’s usual movie-writing team) have concocted here is some kind of wonderful anomaly. The usual Americana-on-steroids vibe of the Bay movies are M.I.A., replaced with a less bombastic combination of bot-outta-water shenanigans, some tentative romantic bonding between Charlie and a nerdy neighbor named Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and sensitive, not-at-all sappy Y.A. drama. Steinfeld’s gearhead heroine is a variation on her confused high schooler from The Edge of Seventeen (2016), which fits Bumblebee‘s franchise-outcast vibe perfectly. There are in-jokes regarding the era’s pop-culture cheese whiz and callbacks for fans (or in the case of a well-timed “You’ve Got the Touch” needle-drop, both). It’s fun without feeling forced or like it’s simply trying to overwhelm you. There’s a heart beating beneath all the usual circuitry and cacophony.
If it seems like this is a little too much like “yay, they made a Transformers movie for people who don’t like Transformers movies,” we understand that may sound like nails on a chalkboard for die-hards or damnation via faint praise. The bar for this series was so low as to be subterranean; merely displaying coherence would have given it an edge over its fellow entries. Yet the fact that Knight, Hodson, Steinefeld and everyone else involved actually put effort into what could have been another quick cash-in feels like a minor miracle. It’s a blockbuster that, with a few whirring movements and a half dozen clicks and beeps, transforms itself into something meant to be watched by actual thinking, feeling human beings. For once, there really is more than meets the eye.