The Transformers movies are more popular and worse than we deserve or could have predicted. Who could have guessed that we would be five movies into a film series that require over two hundred million dollars a piece to make and say absolutely nothing? They have become the bain of many critics summer season and still rake in a generous profit so this means they won’t stop getting made.
Now it has reached the point that all long-lasting, popular franchise reach, branching out. The main story is no longer enough so there need to be movies about the other characters to fill in the time between the main installments. Like with the MARVEL movies or Star Wars. So we have the popular supporting character Bumblebee that we know was on Earth for some time before the events of the first movie so that seems like a good enough place to build something.
As soon as the movie opens we see things that we have never seen before within these movies, a battle between the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons…OK, we’ve actually seen that a lot but this takes place on the home planet of Cybertron. Already this movie opens uniquely, with fresh visuals. Also, the Transformers look more like themselves than they ever have within these movies. In Michael Bay’s movies, they were cluttered, with too many moving parts and most of them were grey so you couldn’t easily distinguish which giant robot was which. Here they are composed of simpler shapes, have a distinctive silhouette, and have their own color so you can easily register one from another. This is a good start. The Autobots are loosing and the leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders a retreat, they do so and he gives orders to his second in command B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) to go to Earth and send the signal when it is safe for them.
Upon arriving on Earth they get the attention of a military platoon lead by Jack Burns, played by pro wrestler John Cena. A chase and shootout happen along with another Decepticon that followed, in the fight B-127’s voice box gets destroyed talking away his ability to speak. He stumbles and takes the form of a yellow Beatle Volkswaggon.
Sometime later (1987) we are introduced to a young girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). She wakes up to her eighteenth birthday, she gets a flowery helmet from her mother and a book about being positive from her stepfather. She would prefer a car of her own because that means independence. She tries to fix a car that she and her dad would work on a lot when he was alive but never to success. One day while browsing the local garage she works at she finds an abandoned yellow Beatles Volkwagon, the owner allows her to take it home as her birthday present. This particular car is, of course, B-127. The truth is revealed pretty quickly and because he is unable to articulate words he’s only able to produce synthetic buzzing sounds, Charlie says “You sound like a little bumblebee” so this is what she calls him.
Charlie likes to listen to music, which also becomes the soundtrack for the movie and is spirited. She has wants and is selfish, but is also a teenager so it’s forgiven. Steinfeld plays her with fun and poignancy when it comes to the emotional moments. John Cena pulls off the hard as nails and snarky Military Lieutenant with great ease, he has the believable physicality which lends him authority and has a sharp stare which is intimidating but he is also able to balance it with some dry humor. He also has probably the best line in the whole franchise “I mean they call themselves Decepticons, no one thinks that’s suspicious?”
Behind the camera, as the director is Travis Knight, whose only other directing credit is Laika’s Kubo of the Two Strings but served as producer and animator on Laika’s two previous movies (The Boxtrolls and Paranorman) as well as an animator so he knows his way around the filmmaking process. He brings what he learned through his time in animation taught him, a disciplined, clear mentality towards storytelling, ability to craft likable characters and some hard-hitting emotional moments. Animation takes a lot of effort to pull off right so the pre-production prosses is very long and meticulous, you need to plan and revise much more than traditional live-action movies and be sure that almost every frame is clear. Knight brings this mentality towards this movie and what we have is a well-crafted, slick experience.
Bee is the lightweight compared to the other Transformers so he hits them in their joints which are the most vulnerable places to strike and uses his weight to flip them. This adds personality and logical grounding to the fights. As well as this Bee has a shy body language, he’s never been in a human house before and isn’t there to do wrong so he’s nervous and can easily break things, this is a personality and the effects team and storytellers have fun with his transforming abilities i.e. using it to get through a door, only transforming one piece of his body at a time. This is more fun and creativity than we’ve gotten in five whole movies.
On Bumblebees trail, however, are Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) two Decepticons that know if they find him they find Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) leader of the Autobots. They are also able to transform into both land vehicles and aircraft which I thought was against the rules of Transformers no point about being nitpicky about details like this. So some of this movie’s appeal is what I liked about Ant-Man, it is a lower scale movie, still with stakes but nothing that will end with the firey, apocalyptian destruction of a city and a few neighbourhoods along the way. If the world is always at stake and a city is always toppled then we grow numb to it. So this movie, very wisely, drawn back on the destruction porn and makes it about the characters and merely peppers it wish the crashing and the smashing. Making a much more even and enjoyable experience.
When it comes to long-lasting established characters that are passed down from one creative to the next, like Sherlock Homes, Superheroes or Shakespeare you will get various degrees of quality products. But these characters and this franchise have existed from over thirty to eighty to even hundreds of years, clearly, they are not broken and have something that keeps them alive. Under Bay, Transformers has almost become a dirty word, one that signifies ludicrous characters, offensive stereotypes, and indulgence in C.G.I. destruction. But there is clearly something enduring about these characters and this concept, they’re not broken, merely mishandled.
Bumblebee is the best Transformers movie and is better than it deserves to be considering its company. It is fun, creative, sharp and clear. It is the best movie to have Transformers in it since the original in 1986.