The Transformers movie franchise is a horse beaten so far past the point of death that even its skeleton has turned to dust in the wind. Almost universally decried as terrible, even by many of the people whose ticket purchases perpetuated Michael Bay’s love-hate relationship with the franchise for a decade, Transformers seemed to have finally run itself into the ground with The Last Knight, the only installment to underperform at the box office despite possibly being the best one by virtue of pushing the limits of its own bafflingly incoherent internal mythology.
So now here we are with Bumblebee, something of a soft-reboot or prequel (or whatever Paramount decides this shakes out to be) that doesn’t have Michael Bay in the director’s chair. Instead, Travis Knight of Kubo and the Two Strings fame takes the helm with Christina Hodson writing, and wouldn’t you know it, the pair don’t seem openly hostile to the notion of making a movie based on children’s playthings. Consequently, Bumblebee feels like the Transformers movie we should have gotten in the first place: a slice of family-friendly fun.
The story takes place in 1987 and follows Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage mechanic dealing with the loss of her father by holing up in her family’s garage, attempting to repair her father’s car, and avoiding her mom, stepdad and little brother as much as humanly possible. On her eighteenth birthday, the local junkyard she peruses agrees to let her have a beat-up Volkswagen if she can repair it, which she does and brings home, only to discover that the car is actually a transforming robot named Bumblebee, incapable of speech and unable to remember where he came from or what he’s doing on Earth. As Charlie bonds with the alien creature, though, a pair of evil Decepticons track Bumblebee to Earth, believing he holds the secret to capturing the Autobot leader Optimus Prime, and not far behind them is a spooked U.S. military, personified by John Cena in a role that lets him flex his comedic chops in a welcome subversion of expectations.
Everything about Bumblebee feels built from the ground up as something of a statement of renewed purpose for the Transformers film franchise, a direct rebuttal to the idiosyncrasies of the Michael Bay films that rather firmly answers who these films are supposed to be for: kids. Sure, the '80s setting, perhaps a bit overstuffed with nostalgic reminders of the era of the toy line’s origin, is meant to appeal to the sensibilities of adults who grew up with Generation One, but the story is cribbing heavily from the likes of E.T. and its progenitors, telling the story of a young woman and her otherworldly pet as she learns to cope with her sense of loss and estrangement from her family in broad cinematic language that a young audience can easily grasp. This does eventually evolve into a tentpole action film, complete with robot fights and explosions, but they are informed by pathos and definable goals, with coherent and fun action beats that aren’t exactly memorable but deliver on the promise of transforming robots doing cool things with their abilities.
It’s also incredibly refreshing to see how much this installment is working to balance out the hypermasculine bravado of those previous films. Steinfeld is in full Edge of Seventeen teenage angst mode for this one, but with a softer edge that makes her feel more nakedly wounded than acerbically guarded, but it works well for the kid-friendly angle she’s playing to. She’s the center of this film, both in terms of character arc and empathetic gravity, so while the titular space robot sidekick vacillates between competent warrior and naïve buffoon as the plot dictates, Charlie informs us of the stakes and makes us care about them. And while there are only three or so major robot characters in the film, it’s nice to finally see some female-coded entries into the film canon, which purists (see: sexist manbabies) may decry but so much of Bumblebee’s humor is specifically calling attention to how silly this franchise is that the film itself is undercutting those objections.
As someone who has spent the last eleven years associating Transformers with some of the worst impulses of blockbuster cinema, it’s very difficult for me to treat Bumblebee as anything but a counterpoint to all that came before it. But it’s important to remember that this counterpoint is being made explicitly to bring in a new audience, one that appreciates colorful and cartoony designs to the cold pseudo-realism of the last decade. This is acting as an entry point for a new generation of fans, and it’s a worthy rebirth for the franchise. The beats are familiar and the film never really rises above being a solid studio product with a surprisingly good screenplay, but that’s enough to give a new crop of Transformers fans the film they deserve and one that us adults have been waiting on for far too long.