'Bumblebee': Film Review

All the action and twice the charm of its predecessors.
12/21/2018

Travis Knight competently assumes command of the 'Transformers' franchise’s latest installment, starring Hailee Steinfeld alongside John Cena, Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett.

Earning a reputation for unrestrained bombast and bloated running times, the first five Transformers movies, based on the long-running Hasbro toy line, set a certain standard for over-the-top blockbusters. With 2017’s The Last Knight, they had almost become an overblown parody of themselves, as the Transformers cinematic universe began exhibiting clear indications of franchise fatigue.

Serving as a prequel to the previous installments dating back to 2007, Bumblebee also represents an imaginative spinoff from the original films, providing an extended account of the fan-favorite character’s origins. As the first pic in the series that isn’t directed by Michael Bay (who instead serves as an executive producer), Bumblebee also offers a significant change-up for the typically male-dominated franchise, centering on a teen girl as the movie’s protagonist.

Once again bearing a PG-13 rating, with the emphasis this time probably more on the PG end of the age spectrum, Paramount’s release will face plenty of competition at the box office over the upcoming holiday weekend. With both a fresh take on the decade-old franchise and plenty of nods to its predecessors, along with a host of new character revelations, Bumblebee should perform respectably well by pulling in both longtime fans and a new audience of younger viewers. 

Since it’s been several installments since the films revisited the origins of these off-world visitors, Bumblebee opens with a brief recap of the events that drove the sentient robots to seek refuge on Earth. On the distant planet Cybertron, the centuries-long civil war pitting the peace-loving Autobots against the power-hungry Decepticons reaches a critical stage, with the Autobots facing imminent defeat. In desperation, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (making only a brief appearance here) tasks young soldier B-127 with establishing a foothold on Earth and protecting the planet and its inhabitants for the eventual arrival of the remaining Autobots.

Descending to Earth in the middle of a military exercise led by secretive government agency Sector 7 commander Jack Burns (John Cena) sometime in 1987, Bumblebee inadvertently announces his arrival with a spectacular crash-landing that quickly segues to an intense firefight as Burns and his soldiers attempt to capture Bumblebee.

This early sequence, followed by the arrival of a Decepticon pursuer intent on destroying Bumblebee, threatens to tip the movie over into the series’ familiar reliance on overindulgent action set pieces. The filmmakers quickly make a critical course correction, however, allowing Bumblebee to escape his pursuers and hunker down in a San Francisco Bay Area junkyard after transforming into a faded yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.

That’s where Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers the dilapidated Bug while scavenging spare parts to remodel the classic 1959 Corvette long treasured by her dad, who died of a heart attack while she was still in high school. Approaching her 18th birthday, she’s craving greater independence, so the old VW seems like just the ticket to freedom that she’s been seeking.

When Charlie gets the Bug home, however, she’s astounded to witness the car’s sudden transition to robot form and decisively nicknames B-127 “Bumblebee” once she gets over her initial shock. This critical transformation scene demonstrates noticeable improvements in digital effects over the previous films, with sharp visual details, realistic color shading and seamless transitions between robot and vehicular forms, which should all appear especially realistic in the 3D theatrical release.

A brief honeymoon period ensues that sees Charlie and Bumblebee become fast friends, as she pointedly ignores her concerned mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) and Sally’s new boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider), as well as her nosy younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker). Bumblebee’s troubles are quickly catching up with him, though, as new Decepticon arrivals Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) and his commander Shatter (Angela Bassett, in the series’ first female Transformer role) partner with the unwitting leaders of Sector 7 and a suspicious Burns to hunt him down at any cost.

By taking the Transformers universe in a new, more intimate character-driven direction, screenwriter Christina Hodson (who has the Suicide Squad Harley Quinn sequel Birds of Prey up next) plays directly to the franchise’s roots. Skillfully shaping what’s essentially a coming-of-age story for both Charlie and Bumblebee, Hodson layers in a sense of wonder and discovery that effectively recaptures the innovation and energy of the 2007 original. It’s an effective reimagining that also bears a knowing resemblance to classic youth-oriented films from Bumblebee executive producer Steven Spielberg.

As Charlie, struggling to adjust after the still painful death of her father, Steinfeld draws on previous roles in both drama and comedy, shading her performance with infectious enthusiasm and an appropriate dash of evolving maturity. Steinfeld spends more screen time interacting with Bumblebee’s CGI image than any other character, which demands an intensity of focus that comes through in key scenes, particularly when a comedic touch is called for.

The film’s noticeably more humorous tone is also an improvement upon its predecessors, which typically tend to be overly self-serious. Cena’s Jack Burns ends up as the obvious target in many of these scenes, with the franchise’s fixation on the federal-military-intelligence complex getting far less respect than in previous films. After Blockers and a series of other comedic roles, Cena has proven that he can take the ridicule, delivering even some of his more portentous lines with an underlying smirk.

The selection of Oscar-nominated animated feature film director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) to helm the prequel turns out to be spot-on, as he exhibits an instinctual sense for the film’s requisite action quotient while attentively crafting the central characters’ emotional arcs.

The filmmakers’ decision to portray Bumblebee as a mid-'60s Volkswagen Bug may seem like a strange choice to some, but this model was the character’s original configuration in early stages of the Transformers timeline before morphing into the more muscular Chevrolet Camaro in later movies. Knight adeptly incorporates the Beetle’s familiar, friendly shape into both the rollicking action sequences and the more emotional dramatic scenes to form Bumblebee’s immediately recognizable secondary character.

With Paramount’s planned Transformers 7 project shelved for now, Bumblebee could represent the studio’s next best chance to extend the franchise, if audiences throw their support behind the latest reimagining of the iconic entertainment property.

Production companies: Allspark Pictures, Paramount Pictures, DB Pictures, Hasbro, Bay Films, Tencent Pictures
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Brian Goldner, Chris Brigham
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Sean Haworth
Costume designer: Dayna Pink
Editor: Paul Rubell
Music: Dario Marianelli
Casting director: Denise Chamian

Rated PG-13, 119 minutes