Talk about bringing a clunker back from the dead. The Transformers cinematic franchise, started and arguably ended by director Michael Bay, quickly became a thing that nobody cares about anymore. These big, CGI-heavy action movies are joyless, bleak and their biggest problem is that they’re never that fun. Bumblebee is the only good movie in the Transformers franchise, and of course, it isn’t directed by Michael Bay.
Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a girl who is about to have her 18th birthday. Her father died a year ago, and they always bonded over fixing old cars. Her mother has a new boyfriend, she’s kind of moved on. Charlie has closed herself off from the rest of the family, trying to repair this old car that won’t start. One day, she comes across an abandoned yellow Volkswagen Beetle that comes to life as Bumblebee. This outcast girl begins to bond with the eponymous Transformer, and he ultimately helps her heal and come into her own. Meanwhile, the bad robots – the Decepticons – are after Bumblebee and threaten humanity itself, and it might be up to Charlie and Bumblebee to save the world.
Directed by LAIKA Animation CEO Travis Knight, Bumblebee is everything that the Michael Bay Transformers movies are not. It’s whimsical, clever, joyous and delightful. The playful and sweet relationship between the young outcast kid and the robot she calls her own is very reminiscent of something like E.T., where this CGI-heavy character immediately becomes something tangible to relate to and invest in emotionally.
The scenes in which Charlie, a vividly drawn character, who is desperate for connection, but quick to shut herself off to the world around her, interacts and bonds with big, hulking, yet also vulnerable and adorable Bumblebee, are much more dazzling and technically proficient than any obligatory third-act battle scene. The story involving the government agency investigating Bumblebee, and the whole save-the-world plot is really treated like a B-story, and that’s just the way it should be.
Steinfeld, a young singer-actress who, at 22, is already an Oscar nominee. She’s very good here. As she proved in The Edge of Seventeen, she’s an actress capable of elevating source material that seems less than the sum of its parts. So far, she has been able to balance a music career (where she opened on tour for Katy Perry and Meghan Trainor) and a career as an actress who picks exciting projects. On paper, Bumblebee looks like a grab-the-paycheck-and-run project, but she’s one of the ingredients that makes it truly joyful to behold. It’s also worth noting that this is a Transformers film made without the Michael Bay trademark male gaze. There are no lingering camera shots on bikini-clad actresses. Nothing about Steinfeld’s heroine is sexualized and nothing about the camerawork is leery or gross. Thank goodness.
In the supporting cast, John Cena plays an ex-army agent trying to get to the bottom of things, and he continues to forge his own path as an actor, with mostly successful results. Pamela Adlon from FX’s Better Things plays Charlie’s mother. Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux voice the mean robots. Jorge Lendeborg Jr., from Love, Simon, plays Memo, a sort-of sidekick/love interest to Charlie, and he’s as charming as she is.
In the end, I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed Bumblebee. It’s rousing, brisk, delightful and surprisingly emotional. It’s heavy on 80’s nostalgia (they must have spent a fortune on music rights) and Amblin-style charm, and yet nothing quite feels like a rehash. It’s not enough to convince me to go back and watch all of the Transformers movies I purposely did not watch, but I will watch the next one if it’s half this good.