For almost anyone who grew up in the ‘80s, Transformers toys were ubiquitous. The toys, the cartoon – even the 1986 animated movie starring Orson Welles as the disembodied voice of planet Unicron, in his last role. So it’s interesting in retrospect that Michael Bay’s hugely successful franchise avoided any hint of ‘80s nostalgia, opting for a CGI-rich cybernetic landscape of duelling robots that was very much of its time.
Enter Bumblebee. The first spinoff of Bay’s franchise – a prequel to 2007’s Transformers – is executive produced by Bay, but with screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight at the helm, it has more in common with works of fellow producer Steven Spielberg. Set in the late ‘80s, Bumblebee takes the quickly-forgotten boy-and-his-robot-car hook of Transformers and turns it into a movie entire, only this time the boy is a girl: Hailee Steinfeld’s tomboyish Charlie Watson, who discovers the derelict Bumblee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien occasionally, though he’s primarily mute) abandoned in a mechanic’s junkyard.
Bumblebee is, like its franchise predecessors, fundamentally an action comedy. However, while there’s plenty of robot-on-robot action onscreen, Knight eschews the Escherian excess and all-out warfare of Bay’s films for clean compositions and comparative spatial clarity. For once, you actually have a sense of where everyone is as they’re duking it out! Thankfully, Knight maintains the flashes of irreverent humour from Bay’s first film …before the franchise descended into racial stereotypes and jokes about statutory rape.
The film’s humour and general family-friendly atmosphere is very much in the vein of films like E.T. or shows like Alf. The latter receives an explicit shoutout and even a brief cameo appearance. Indeed, Hodson seems intent to make her references as clear as possible, incorporating The Breakfast Club into the narrative, including needle drops from both Weird Science and – hilariously – the aforementioned Transformers: The Movie. There’s even an extended subplot revolving around diving that comes to a head in the climax, which had me drawing immediate comparison to The Neverending Story, intended or otherwise.
Bumblebee’s appeal goes beyond cosmetic homage; not only is it imbued with the colourful spirit of ‘80s family films, the actors have been carefully chosen to ensure entertainment throughout. The cast is filled out by the likes of John Cena, Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider – all of whom have solid experience in comedy. It’s not that there are many big laughs here, necessarily; the story is taken quite seriously, and the screenplay avoids the kind of overt silliness that characterises contemporary Hollywood comedies. But, refreshingly, the filmmakers realise that films about giant transforming robots should be primarily directed at kids, and execute accordingly.
All of this praise I’m heaping on Bumblebee has to be balanced against the film’s flaws, which are primarily structural. It’s trying to do so much – create a bond between Charlie and Bumblebee, capture Charlie’s resentment and increasing distance from her parents, lay the Autobots-vs-Decepticons groundwork for the films that follow – that the connective tissue is often weak or omitted altogether. There’s enough sense of forward momentum that this can be forgiven…mostly. But when Charlie’s mum (Adlon) returns home to a house wrecked by Bumblebee, yet brushes off any sense of rage or disappointment because they need to prop up Charlie’s character arc, the seams show a tad too much.
Still, I can’t imagine that this will bother the film’s primary audience of teens and their parents. This is first and foremost a fun film, and as much as I can recognise the merits of Bay’s Transformers films, that hasn’t been something you could say about them for quite some years.