Courtesy of Paramount Picture
As if four “Transformer” films wasn’t enough, Paramount Pictures was watching one of their hit cash cows slowly lose money (the fifth entry “The Last Knight” was the lowest grosser in the series). Of course, in this monopolized entertainment landscape, any potential franchise must be milked until there's nothing left, no narrative corner can be left unturned. While not perfect, Paramount’s last ditch effort (or so it seemed) to breath new life into their only remaining mega franchise may have paid off.
That’s right, much to my surprise, stop-motion guru Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings) has successfully managed to make the leap from animation to live action. His newest (and probably most ambitious) project comes from the “Transformer” canon, a spin-off called “Bumblebee” which decides to shift gears and offer the lovable, yellow, camaro the spotlight. On paper, that idea likely rolled some eyes, and I’m here to say it’s not terrible, but far from revolutionary. Although, it could be the best entry since Michael Bay unleashed the Autobots and Decepticons unto the world circa 2007.
Perhaps getting rid of Bay was the right call, as “Bumblebee” marks the first “Transformers” flick without the explosions aficionado in the directing chair. Clocking in under the two hour mark (which has to be a first in the series) Knight offers a nostalgic, character-driven flick that, unlike its predecessors, is about something. Gone are the days of mindless exposition, scenes that overstay their welcomes, and machinery chewing up the screen. Instead, “Bumblebee” has the vibe of an 80s’ throwback, complete with references from “The Breakfast Club” to The Smiths. (You may even get Rick Rolled too).
Singer-turned-actress Hailee Steinfeld is in the driver's seat playing Charlie Watson, a 17 year old who wants a car, enjoys vintage records, spends her summer vacation working the local carnival, and obsesses over mechanic shops. We find out she’s recently lost her father, and has given up her passion of diving, which is only briefly explained in Christina Hodson sometimes messy screenplay. Elsewhere in the world, Bumblebee (briefly voiced by Dylan O’ Brian) has fled his home planet Cybertron in lieu of Earth under the orders of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).
It’s not long before the bright yellow soldier becomes noticed by slimy government personnel (headed by the beefy John Cena) and makes a dash for cover. Taking shape as a worn down beetle that could use a tuneup, the rusty vehicle catches the attention of Charlie who sets the car as her next project (you can imagine her shock when the buttery yellow body transforms as a living entity standing inside her garage).
Whereas Bay would probably spend the next twenty minutes inserting witty one liners for Julie White, Knight decides to hone in on the characters and Charlie’s discovery of what Autobots are and how they exists. In turn, “Bumblebee” works more in that regard then an intergalactic royale, which this franchise can never steer away from. The final twenty minutes (and the first ten) offer the routine violence those from the franchise will crave, it’s also the least interesting (though, the retro look on all the Transformers is slick and neat). And the undeveloped romance between Charlie and the boy next door Memo (“Love Simon’s Jorge Lendeborg Jr) is worth embracing despite the filmmakers never finding the correct balance for its inclusion.
Still, “Bumblebee” is easily the most spunky addition to this franchise, and a much needed breather from the drought of previous nonsensical madness. Most importantly, the film remembers its geared toward the youngsters, and doesn’t forget to sprinkle a touch of humanity along the way. At last, this could be the “Transformers” flick you’ve all been anticipating.