It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.
A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.
Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.
There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.