Bumblebee jettisons the bombast and excess of the preceding Transformers films for something smaller and more introspective. It's still an action film through and through, but with the heart and soul of a 1980's Steven Spielberg film. Fans of Michael Bay's work on the franchise may miss the flash and spectacle of the prior films, but fans of the original cartoon should be well pleased. The film's deft mix of action and humor even offers plenty for the general movie-going public, who may not know a Fortress Maximus from an Ultra Magnus. Bumblebee is easily the best Transformers movie to date, and it is great fun for fans both new and old.
What is perhaps most important to understand about reviewing Bumblebee is that the plot is really only half the story. Sure, I can tell you that Bumblebee is about the titular Autobot meeting a human companion and attempting to stop a Decepticon invasion of Earth, but that really misses the point. Bumblebee is fundamentally about the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie, his human partner in this movie, and how each of them grow as individuals through their friendship. It is a character-centric film with a flashy sci-fi coating, much in the vein of E.T. or The Iron Giant. In a lot of ways it feels like what the 2007 Transformers film tried but failed to accomplish. The story beats of both films are surprisingly similar, but director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson manage to inject this film with heart and emotion that its predecessor sorely lacked. Much of that can be credited to Hailee Steinfeld, who ably carries the emotional heft of the film. The animators did a fantastic job on Bumblebee as well, taking him from loveable mechanical dog to red-eyed death machine and back without missing a beat.
That attention to character detail carries over to much of the rest of the cast. The two Decepticon antagonists are given personalities and motivations more fully realized than almost any of the baddies from the prior films. The remaining cast of human characters are given relatively little focus in favor of the main cast, but even they have more life than any secondary characters from the Michael Bay-directed films (and personalities that aren't driven by offensive stereotypes to boot). Again, the cast really carries this part of the movie. Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux are equal parts smooth and sinister as the evil Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. handles Memo's sidekick duties with aplomb, and John Cena continues to prove that he's a surprisingly capable actor who can handle both action and comedy.
Notwithstanding the character-centric nature of the film, the visuals are a treat. The movie begins with a stunning CGI battle sequence between the Autobots and Decepticons on Cybertron, which will no doubt delight fans of the original cartoon. Watching a G1-accurate Optimus Prime battle equally old-school versions of Thundercracker and Ravage was certainly a thrill for my inner six-year-old. The action largely takes a back seat after the first act before ramping back up for the film's climax. The final battle is not nearly as massive in scope as any of the climactic scenes from the prior Transformers films, but it is certainly well executed. The more simplified robot designs make the action much easier to follow compared to the earlier films, and the choreography of the fights is well done. The film is also surprisingly funny in a wholesome way, avoiding the vulgar jokes and bathroom humor of the franchise's earlier installments. Robot-on-robot violence aside, it's a charming family film.
After a decade of relentless explosions, convoluted plots, and thin characters, Bumblebee is a much needed course correction. The franchise needed to transform itself after the underperformance of The Last Knight, and Bumblebee is just the jolt that it needed. Bumblebee is great fun for fans and non-fans alike, and both G1 purists and Bay-verse devotees will find something to love.