BUMBLEBEE Review

Bumblebee is produced by Steven Spielberg, but it doesn't feel like a 2018 Steven Spielberg-produced movie, it feels like a 1987 Steven Spielberg-produced movie. That is to say this Travis Knight picture is undoubtedly influenced by the young ensemble adventures of Spielberg's early days and is nothing short of a welcome change of pace for a franchise that, let's be honest, had long since passed its breaking point and was desperate for some change in direction (take note, Wizarding World!). Knight, the son of Phil Knight AKA the co-founder and current Chairman of Nike, Inc., who is himself now the current president and CEO of Laika Animation-a studio he helped re-organize and re-brand over a decade ago-had only directed a single feature (2016's Kubo and the Two Strings) prior to taking on the task of re-energizing a major franchise, but damn it if the guy doesn't have a grasp on exactly what this franchise needed: simplicity. The key is simplicity in everything and Knight as well as sole (emphasis on sole) screenwriter Christina Hodson (Unforgettable) understand that from the perspective of the story all the way down to character design; things are streamlined in order to simultaneously wipe the slate clean and inject some much needed adrenaline into the concept of robots in disguise. Gone are the convoluted plots and multiple McGuffin’s of Michael Bay's films and stripped are the overly detailed and multi-colored Transformer designs as Knight and co. make everything better by making it easier. In doing so, Bumblebee quickly establishes itself not only as a thrilling, adventure origin story of sorts, but as one of the more heartwarming films of the season as well (I know, I'm as surprised as you are). A true coming-of-age story for both the title character and Hailee Steinfeld's Charlie that features a few massive action set pieces rather than the other way around, Bumblebee is somehow able to retain the tone of a Saturday morning cartoon while rising above being little more than a campy homage to those Spielberg-involved films of yesteryear a la The Goonies or E.T. In fact, Bumblebee is more an unabashed update of The Iron Giant that changes the setting from space race era America to the radically free MTV-inspired era of the eighties. With its feet firmly planted in a universe where the kids are always smarter than the adults, where the aliens are as fearful of us as we are of them, and where every scenario we're presented with is one any group of young children could play out in their backyards Bumblebee resuscitates a series that had long been surviving on life support.

Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux) follow Bumblebee to earth in hopes of defeating the Autobots.
© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro.
First things first, Bumblebee isn't anything radical that re-invents the wheel, but what it does do is cleanse the palette of all the trash and bloat that has piled up in association to the live-action Transformers franchise over the last ten years. It's re-invigorating and fun and re-focuses things on the key relationship between a young, impressionable, but ambitious human being and a robot. To this extent, and as stated in the previous paragraph, both Charlie and Bumblebee experience actual growth as characters as they both have arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends that are both symmetrical and well-rounded as well as fulfilling the goals of both the characters and plot. In other words, Bumblebee feels like a real movie and not something that was patched together in a writer's room over several months and then shot in a way where the action sequences dictate the rest of the film. No, Knight clearly has a knack for the character moments as is evidenced simply in the time and care he takes in developing the rapport between Charlie and Bumblebee. Viewers are treated to an opening sequence on Cybertron that will no doubt make fans of the original, animated series giddy with excitement as Knight documents how Bee wound up on earth and, as a result, how he lost his voice. This plot point is mentioned specifically as, while it is necessary for continuity's sake if not to keep in line with the mythology, what Knight and the team of animators working on the film are able to do through the title character's eyes is a win in and of itself. Bumblebee's body language and facial expressions articulate a whole range of emotions that the Bay series of films would have never even flirted with. It is also thanks to a more stripped down and frankly, cleaner, visual design that intentionally hues closer to the squared out with more distinctive silhouettes look of the generation one animated series, that we get a more clear interpretation of not only what these robots are conveying, but who they are as living organisms. There is no confusion as to who is bad and who is good or which robots belong to which side, but instead-in this film-there is the core relationship between Charlie and Bee that is the heart of the film and developed accordingly and then there is the throughline plot of the film that deals with what are referred to as "triple changers" in Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux) who have followed Bee to Earth in order to track down and destroy the remainder of the Autobots.

It is the summer of 1987 (twenty years before the events of the first Transformers) and eighteen-year-old Charlie is still reeling over the death of her father whom she was clearly close with and who was the person that taught her how to fix up old cars; a skill that has turned into a crutch. Charlie's mother (Pamela Adlon) has already moved on to a goober of a new guy (Stephen Schneider) that dresses so much like he's in the eighties that the eighties themselves are rushing to the finish line while her younger brother, Otis (Jason Drucker), seems to have been too young when their father passed to be too mad about the fact he's already been replaced. Charlie remains sullen and alone when at home often times retiring to the garage to try and finish restoring the car she and her dad once worked on together. Living in a suburb of San Francisco, Charlie works at a corn dog stand down on a carnival pier during the day. She rides a moped to work and is oblivious to the fact the nerdy, shy guy (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) who lives across the street and who also works across from her at the churro stand is desperately trying to work up the nerve to ask her out. All of these factors are about to experience drastic changes of course when Bumblebee lands on earth and immediately alerts the U.S. armed forces, as represented by the one and only John Cena as Agent Burns, to the existence of extraterrestrial life forms and the threat they pose to our planet. Bumblebee's arrival on earth is quickly interrupted not only by Cena moving his troops forward on what they don't know and therefore don't understand, but by a Decepticon who battles the young and overwhelmed Autobot into a weakened state forcing Bee to retreat until he can find proper refuge and alert his fellow Autobots of his position. This leads Bee to a junk yard owned by Charlie's Uncle Hank (Len Cariou) where he eventually winds up in the possession of Charlie as Hank allows her to take the VW Beetle off his hands free of charge on her eighteenth birthday. Charlie quickly discovers the secret of her new car and begins forming a bond with the machine through their shared sense of loss, their shared sense of being afraid in this new world they're seemingly both embarking on, while Charlie realizes she can help her new friend find his voice and Bee can inadvertently push Charlie out of her comfort zone and, by consequence, this slump she's been sulking in. The relationship that forms between these two principle characters is notable in that they are completely supportive of one another-furthering our investment in them-and thus reassuring the viewer that even though the plot will inevitably come into play-a plot we've seen countless times before-that there is enough here outside the machinations of the bad guys versus the good guys that we'll walk away talking about more than just how good and cool the special effects looked.

Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) befriends Bumblebee after she unknowingly picks him up from a junkyard.
© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro.
What is maybe most refreshing about Bumblebee though, besides the fact it takes the character beats seriously, is that it aspires to be exactly what it needs to aspire to be. There is always this rule I hold myself to when giving out these arbitrary star ratings to pieces of art that countless people have devoted countless hours to in hopes of making something that might either make an impact or make them money (or both) that comes down to the base question of how well does this particular film accomplish what this particular film set out to accomplish. With Bumblebee, there is no ambition greater than delivering a competent Transformers film that brings the series back to basics while re-establishing the series as more personal by including some genuinely heartfelt and dramatic moments. Steinfeld sells the relationship between her and Bee in such a way that we truly do care about the pair while Cena and Schneider aptly handle the more comedic elements of the script. With Knight bringing all of this together through the lens of not only the time period his film is set in, but by actually constructing the film as if it were born from the eighties the audience is given the sense that Bumblebee is a movie that was truly born from simpler times and is therefore more intelligible and straightforward because of it. Sure, there are choices-such as nearly every scene including some kind of musical cue from the decade or certain sequences where the over-indulgence in CGI does in fact hue a little too close to the Bay films-but never does either instance last long enough to sideline the experience and never do any of the choices Knight makes distract from the overall tone of pure fun that is so clearly the driving force for everything that is being projected on the screen. Knight, a child of the eighties himself who grew up with the original animated series, infuses the film with what is not necessarily the sense of wonder that was so key to that first live-action film being so appealing as this would be near impossible to re-capture a decade on, but rather he balances tone so as to keep expectations in check and then incorporating a significant enough touch to rise above those expectations. Bumblebee is easily the best live-action Transformers film since that initial film and while that might not be saying much the change in approach is what is really critical here and should signal nothing less than an auspicious new start for one of Paramount's biggest properties. As much of a throwback as one can get in terms of tone and atmosphere, Bumblebee is executed in such a stylish, fun fashion that, as hard as it might be to believe, there's renewed interest in where things might go from here.