As child of the 80s I grew up with Transformers. I don’t mean in the sense that they raised me or anything but there was a time when my wallpaper, duvet cover, pyjamas and shoe laces were covered in Generation 1 figures. Jump ahead twenty years and I was sat opening week for Michael Bay’s 2007, live action Transformers movie… and it was an utter shit-show. A convoluted plot, ugly-ass robot design, bewildering action set pieces and a bum-numbing 2hrs 23minute runtime would be the franchise’s peak as Bay’s pentalogy lurched on. It didn’t matter that these films were garbage from floor to ceiling. Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction broke a billion at the box office in no small part due to China’s inexplicable adoration for Bay’s behemoths.
Then in 2017, Guy Ritchie and Michael Bay both arrived to the party with King Arthur movies (How embarrassing). One starred Charlie Humdrum and David Beckham while the other featured Transformers and a slightly bonkers Anthony Hopkins. While Transformer 5: The Last Knight was a commercial success it took home close to half of what the previous instalment managed and still less than Bay’s 2007 originator. There were rumblings of Hasbro and Bay turning the whole venture off and on again in order to reboot the Toysploitation franchise, but not before a prequel/ spin-off swansong that would be handled by Kubo and the Two Strings director, Travis Knight. Bumblebee couldn’t have been in safer hands.
Declaring Bumblebee the best Transformers movie isn’t really saying much. For the sixth entry into a franchise to be the strongest is a rare thing indeed (squints at the Blu-ray collection and notices Mission: Impossible – Fallout). Bumblebee is character-led, emotionally resonant and frequently funny. Aesthetically and sonically, Knight has delivered the most faithful realisation of the Generation 1 Transformers with the Cybertron scenes look as though they’ve been ripped from the 1980’s cartoon. Sadly, those scenes are fleeting and it pains me that Paramount doesn’t believe an audience could be invested in a whole Transformers movie without human characters.
The aesthetic, the sound design and the voice acting are mostly fantastic here with the exception of Dylan O’Brien who voices Bumblebee in the opening act. He sounds completely out of his depth in the few scenes he’s in, to the point where it’s distracting. John Cena and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. are solid and manage to convey the balance of menace and comedic side-kick admirably. Hailee Steinfeld is transcendent as Charlie. She’s the beating heart of the movie and her relationship with the titular Transformer is made all the more impressive by the fact that she’s basically talking to ping pong balls on the end of a stick, against a green screen. There’s a tangibility to her performance that made me forget the digital sleight of hand on screen.
Unfortunately, the family dynamic between Charlie, her mother, brother and step-father felt tired and clichéd. Their tone is lighter than the crassness of the Witwicky’s in Bay’s earlier instalments but their dilemma is nothing we haven’t seen before. Also, this movie manages to repeat the same, “protagonist on the ropes” beat at least three times. Will they make it? Will the movie abruptly end 45 minutes early due to their fatality? Who knows?! Honestly, the third time it happened I felt like I was living some kind of loud, industrial, Groundhog Day. In addition to this there’s a lovely organic ending to Bumblebee, but then the movie goes all Return of the King and doesn’t know when to leave the party.
Without giving too much away, I hate, hate, hated the way Bumblebee potentially connects to the Michael Bay monstrosities. This movie feels like a revitalised perspective. A reboot. A factory reset and all other things beginning with “re”. The 80’s setting is a natural fit for the narrative as there’s distance and time between this and Shia LeBeouf. There shouldn’t be a Wahlberg or a Huntington-Whitey within a million light years of this movie! This is a toned-down, big smashy robot movie with a lot of moxie and an electrifying soundtrack. There’s a moment when a Howard Jones song features prominently and I started grinning from ear to ear.
Bumblebee is a bog-standard but totally fine blockbuster. There are plenty of laughs here and genuine heart shown throughout. Travis Knight was a smart pick for director but this is no Kubo and the Two Strings. Fans of the G1 cartoon will finally have a Transformers movie to enjoy but will probably spend most the run time thinking, “where the hell was THIS movie in 2007”?!
Bumblebee launches nationwide on December 24th
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