The Transformers franchise within the past decade has been following what could only be regarded as a downward trajectory; with each successive film suffering from diluted character development, excessive action sequences, and even a severe decrease in box office performance. However, in spite of all of this, I for one can lay back and appreciate what renowned director Michael Bay does within the Transformers franchise; not in terms of the stories he tells, but rather, the visual and sound spectacle he provides on the big screen. The Transformers films essentially stand as reference quality films for showing off sound and picture quality, and for that I can accept them as meaningful films within the zeitgeist of the modern cinema landscape. That being said, I’ve almost never been able to sit through repeat viewings of these films simply due to its unabashedly dull characters and the agonizing Hollywood drama put on-screen – to me, they exist purely as test films for showcasing its visual and sound quality as well as being mindlessly sucked into the bonkers action sequences that some of these films put on-screen. However, this all changes with Bumblebee.
Set in the 1980’s Bumblebee follows the journey of a young girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) – a determined, clever, but distant girl who is still struggling from the recent loss of her father. Charlie comes across Bumblebee in a scrapyard, fixes him up, and they form a bond. This is a story about the bond between Bee and his first companion, their relationship, and the lessons they learn. The decision to go with a character driven story sparks life back into this rusty franchise, stripping bare its paint, re-coating it, and waxing it with a shiny new direction.
Bumblebee stands as the first Transformers film that has story not under the misguided direction of Michael Bay. Director Travis Knight discards the heavy action spectacle and places characters at the forefront to form an enticing story. While the script isn’t perfect, there’s plenty of moments to smile at, as humour plays a major role in creating a more loose and relaxed tone over Bay’s exhausting end of the world nonsense. It goes without saying that this film is certainly aiming to strike a more cutesier tone to attract younger audiences and a larger demographic by making Bee seem more vulnerable and scared. Time will tell whether a more narrative focused tale will result in box office success.
The Autobot aptly named Bee by Charlie throughout this story is a robot that suffers from amnesia and a lack of vocals; alongside this Bee appears to contain a hidden power and immediately forms a bond with Charlie – this instantly reminded me of The Iron Giant (1999) – I mean that in a good way. It goes without saying that this isn’t the most original direction the film could have gone in, but in this franchise, it excels beyond measure. Atop this, Hailee Steinfeld does an excellent job at portraying a teen struggling with the loss of her father and trying to find a way to move on from that. She has an innate ability to convey difficult emotions and elevates every scene she is in. It really was a pleasure seeing her yet again excel in what is essentially a solo performance, much like she did in the coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen (2016).
The immediate difference one would see in this film is the stark difference in action and by extension CGI throughout this film – this is inherently a more grounded approach as far as Transformers film go. Visual Effects are brilliant in relation to its budget, especially considering this film stands as the franchises best narrative, as well as its cheapest. The Autobots look more cartoonish, relating back to its cartoon roots and that cutesier tone mentioned earlier supports this. There was a dramatic increase in creative and off-beat camera shots used in this film, compared to Michael Bay’s more sweeping style of shot direction Bumblebee instead opts for more quirky close-up shots at unexpected angles – ultimately reflecting the tonal difference this film has in comparison to the franchises other titles.
The art direction from sets to costuming felt severely off for an 1980’s setting. This made it difficult to get immersed inside the world as there were essentially no establishing shots of towns to ground you in the time period, just half a dozen locations that the film loops around. There was truly minimal effort put in to making this time period feel authentic. I did however find solace in this films fun soundtrack and top tier sound design, following the footsteps of the previous Transformer films.
Bumblebee branches away from the previous Transformers films by not taking itself too seriously and allowing itself to explore a more settled tone. This is a self-contained story that echoes themes of friendship and courage. Director Travis Knight has given us the best transformers movie to date, it has heart, it has action, and most importantly, it has fun. Bumblebee tears itself away from the repetitive nature of Michael Bay’s formula; bringing fun, heart, and just a little bit of soul to a franchise that felt as robotic as that characters themselves.