Bumblebee is the best film in the Transformers franchise since the live action original. It's not a bloated, juvenile, CGI barrage with a hackneyed script and terrible acting. In other words, Michael Bay is not the director. The sixth volume succeeds because the story and characters are well-written, have depth. Bay's dripping machismo is replaced by a more feminine sensibility. Screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight breathe fresh air into a stale commodity. Bumblebee rekindles the spirit of the cartoon, while adding an unexpected dose of warmth and humor.
Set in 1987, Bumblebee opens with the fall of Cybertron. As the Autobots evacuate the planet, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) dispatches B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth. He is to scout the planet as a possible secret base. The journey does not go smoothly. The Decepticons are one step behind him. His landing observed by a stunned military officer (John Cena).
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie, a grease-monkey teenage loner with a tragic past. Her mother (Pamela Adlon) and goofball stepfather (Stephen Schneider) are constant annoyances. On the cusp of her eighteenth birthday, she's stuck in a minimum wage job, riding a clackety scooter to work. She spends her spare time at her uncle's junkyard, scavenging for parts to fix her beloved father's Corvette. Charlie discovers a beaten up, yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Her attempts to fix the car uncovers an amazing new friend. Charlie finds happiness in the gentle robot. But is completely unprepared for the bad-ass Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), searching for him.
Bumblebee can be described as The Breakfast Club meets Transformers. The roaring eighties soundtrack and teenage girl angst is skillfully blended with the robot carnage. Christina Hodson's screenplay respects the characters. Charlie has a lot of personality. Her family and social life are thoroughly explored. Charlie finds Bumblebee at a low point. He's confused and frightened, needs help. They grow together, developing a strong bond in the process. It sounds sappy as hell, but actually works. The previous Transformers films lacked feeling. They were cold, purely visual spectacles. Hodson, who's also writing Birds of Prey and Batgirl, delivers a complex heroine. Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar nominated for True Grit, plays Charlie perfectly. Girl power is the fuel that drives Bumblebee.
Travis Knight's experience as an animation director is evident here. Knight previously made the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings. He understands how to use visual effects to express intent and emotions. Bumblebee says very little in the film. His facial expressions and mannerisms convey meaning. He goes from tender, humorous moments, to knockdown brawls. Bumblebee's smaller stature in comparison to other Transformers is used to his advantage. He has a unique fighting style that beats down larger opponents. Except for the huge opening scene, Bumblebee's fights are mano a mano. I think these are far more effective than CGI onslaughts. Travis Knight brings a vastly different style to Transformers. It's a welcome change that will definitely be embraced by fans.
Bumblebee reinvigorates the Transformers franchise. Christina Hodson and Travis knight have broadened its appeal to a wider audience. Paramount Pictures and Hasbro have smartly taken a new approach. I hope they stick to this path for the next installment. There are additional scenes during the credits.