I ended up checking out Bumblebee as a curiosity; a late stage sequel in a franchise that never quite did anything worthwhile, suddenly heaped with not exactly glowing praise but at least an overall sense of positivity.
The Transformers film franchise has always been steeped in nostalgia, and Bumblebee seems to finally make it work by pushing it to an extreme. This isn’t nostalgia purely for the cartoon, but the 80s as a whole. The film mixes in the music, the fashion, and everything else from the era. Little touches like the leads bonding over The Smiths really place it in a specific era, and the references flow naturally through the story.
My problem with the initial Transformers was how much time it wasted on human characters, and I used to suggest a perfect move in this franchise would be to reduce the narrative as much as possible and simply find excuses for robots to demolish each other for an hour and a half. Plot never seemed a necessity, and as a few key action films since its release have proven, you can make a film run almost entirely off action sequences if done properly.
Yet Bumblebee runs pretty hard in the opposite direction and makes it work. Specifically, it gives us a really solid protagonist in Charlie, the Smiths-loving proto-gothic teenager who rebuilds Bumblebee at a junkyard. This is a coming-of-age tale that happens to feature a few giant robots. She feels surprisingly real for this franchise.
Which, one of the flaws of this film is how shallow everyone else seems to be. Charlie is a human among cartoons. The school bullies are over-the-top, John Cena plays an obnoxious military agent; the challenges she faces are reduced by how absurd the people she faces are.
Bumblebee is a film with heart in a franchise that previously served as little more than a product, and it works by limiting the scope. Instead of getting carried away with metal-on-metal CGI fests, Bumblebee finds more creative ways to pit the lead robot against the environment he finds himself in. And when we do get those necessary robot fights, they seem to come with better framing than I remember from the past. Which, really comes down to one obvious element: Travis Knight is a much better director than Michael Bay, even in his first live action work. From his work in stop motion animation, it is clear he has learned a lot about how to properly frame action.
Even as the best film in its franchise, Bumblebee still has the annoying tendency to fall back into the juvenile humor found in the earlier films. This is luckily to a lesser degree, but there are quite a few scenes that I feel could have been reduced or cut entirely, especially since the film runs a bit longer than it needed.
Ultimately, Bumblebee is a perfectly pleasant film. It doesn’t push itself to any meaningful degree, but it boils away most of what harmed the other movies in its franchise. I can say I walked away having enjoyed myself, which I feel is all it really set out to do. In that regard, it’s a definite success.
3.5 out of 5 stars