Without Michael Bay, Bumblebee is a waaay better Transformers movie.
It's about a girl and her anthropomorphic Volkswagen Beetle. Not only do they rally against seemingly insurmountable odds but through the ordeal, they discover the thing that each of them is racing towards to. This is Herbie: Fully Loaded.
Oh, wait. Uh.
This is actually a movie about a girl, Charlie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) and her anthropomorphic Volkswagen Beetle, the titular Bumblebee. Assigned to protect Earth, Bumblebee is bushwhacked by a Decepticon, which ends with Bumblebee losing his voice and his memory. But before he goes into, uh, sleep mode,, he scans and transforms into a Volkswagen Beetle. Charlie discovers Bumblebee, the two of them bond and they race to stop the Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux), from alerting the rest of their cohorts to come to earth. On top of that, they have to stave off Sector 7, a secret US government organisation, that's led by Agent Jack Burns (played by John Cena), who has a real issue against the robots. Oh, and Charlie needs to resolve family issues by the end of the nearly two-hour film. Teenage angst, amirite?
Here be spoilers…
What we like
After the rancidness of the last few Transformers movies (Transformers: The Last Knight was the final nail in the coffin), we sorta swore off the 'robots in disguise'. So, when you go in to watch a Transformers spin-off, you do so with lowered expectations, this way you'll never be disappointed.
So, Bumblebee is watchable but that's a low bar to clear.
Hailee Steinfeld is great as Charlie, a woman who suddenly lost her dad to a heart attack and isn't ready to move on. Steinfeld is relatable as the misfit in a 1980s John Hughes movie. Sporting rock band shirts and a sullen demeanour, Charlie's tough exterior is broken when she meets Bumblebee.
See, Charlie is fixing a car that she and her father used to work on before the heart attack. She believes that by restoring the car, she can drive away from her family, away from her problems. But she's unable to repair the vehicle. Instead, she comes across an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle, who is also wrecked and in need of saving. She fixes it and that wakes Bumblebee. Over the course of the movie, we slowly watch two rudderless individuals find their direction in life. This takes place before the first Transformers movie so while it may be sticky with the nostalgia but never become overbearing.
We mentioned that Bumblebee soars without the testosterone-filled sequences that Michael Bay is known for. Instead of the usual 'Bayhem'—though a fair share of things does go boom—the focus falls squarely on Charlie and Bumblebee. It's a rather sweet to watch them to connect. Although voiceless, Bumblee is able to communicate through lyrics from music he scans for. That could have been a crutch but the director, Travis Knight (who is also the CEO of the animation studio, Laika) opted with Bumblebee's expressive mien for a more emotional impact.
What we didn't like
John Cena plays Agent Burns who is distrustful of the robots. It's rather one-dimensional. That furrowed brow that reduces his eyes to slits and his scowl, that's not really an acting stretch, no? We really enjoyed Cena's role as a father trying to look out for his daughter in Blockers, in Bumblebee? Not so much.
Because of how stripped down the movie is from the previous histrionic instalments, the story is formulaic, to a point where it's almost predictable. There is one moment in the film that struck me as odd.
At the climax of the movie, Charlie sees a non-responsive Bumblebee sink into the water. She wants to rescue him but she stuck at the top of a relay tower. The only way is if she dives into the water. There's a brief hesitation as Charlie steps toward the ledge. The way its shot, it seems like its an important moment. As though this is the turning point for her character. But why?
Sure, it alluded to a previous scene, where Charlie is goaded by several of her peers to jump off a cliff and into the water. She used to be a diving champion but she doesn't dive anymore after her dad's passing… but her inability to dive isn't the hurdle she needs to overcome. It's fixing the car, that's the flaw that's stopping Charlie from reaching her goal. That's why it was strange that they made her diving off the tower such a significant point.
(Later, Charlie would discover that an operational car will not solve her problem, it is moving on from her father's death.)
At the end of the movie, Bumblebee transforms into a Camaro and drives away… and now he's cruising next to a familiar-looking semi-trailer truck. Nah, that can't be Optimus Prime. I mean, it doesn't have the Guy Fieri-style decals and I know that Optimus Prime chose the look of the semi-truck in the first movie so the order of the timeline doesn't work-
Oh, damn it. The next scene has Optimus Prime in the robot flesh telling Bumblebee that he did a good job. Dude, you were on earth the entire time? Like, where were you? Bumblebee could have used your help. 'Optimus Prime'? More like 'Optimus Dick', amirite?
What to look out for
The only people you see die in Bumblebee explodes into an indiscernible liquid but it's not blood, you silly goose. This is a PG-13 film! The robots, on the other hand, gets blown up, quartered by tightening chains, smashed into a wall, speared but, again, there's no blood, you silly billy. These damaged robots are just leaking transmission fluids. But if you imagine that these robots possess the same anatomy as human beings, this PG-13 movie is actually a splatter film for robot audiences.
Bumblebee is out in theatres.