REVIEW: ‘Bumblebee’ is a Nostalgia-Fueled Delight


‘Bumblebee’ has succeeded in delivering such a well-realized and satisfying Transformers film that it’s mind-boggling it took six movies to get here. This is not only the best film in the franchise, it’s one of the most joyous film experiences of the year.

When I resignedly walked into the theater for ‘Bumblebee’ I did not know who the director was. I only knew it was not Michael Bay. This was welcome news after subjecting myself to seeing every single one of the five previous films in the theater. Each inane exercise in bludgeoning CGI blizzardry felt like cinematic self-immolation. Every bloated installment brought along new blooming crises of conscience. “Why am I seeing this in theaters when there are a dozen more worthy films I didn’t support this year? Am I part of the problem?” Of course I’m part of the problem. There really is no excuse. Curiosity mixed with a feeling of pop cultural responsibility does not absolve me. I knew what I was getting going in. And after the two hour mark of every film, dizzied into submission by Bay’s second-unit snake oiling and crammed into increasingly-uncomfortable seats: I paid my price.

It really was more than that. Beneath the constant self -flagellation was a hope born in the nostalgic haze-memories of youth playing with Transformers toys and watching cartoons. I just wanted a good Transformers movie. Surely the infinite monkey theorem would bear fruit at some point. Surely the broken clock would be right at least once someday. It never happened. So although I didn’t know who directed ‘Bumblebee,’ I knew it wasn’t Michael Bay. And that was enough to bring me in, my expectations dragging on the floor behind me. Maybe Anyone-Other-Than-Michael-Bay was the hero we needed.

As it turns out, a quick trip to IMDB would have told me to possess high hopes. That’s okay though. Having low expectations is something I try to embrace as a life philosophy, film should be no exception.

‘Bumblebee’ is directed by Travis Knight and I should not have worried. There is pedigree here. Knight was a lead animator for Laika on films like ‘Coraline,’ ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Box Trolls’ before his directorial debut, the marvelous ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ Like Brad Bird before him, he has made the leap from animation to live-action with remarkable acumen. The medium of stop-motion specifically has trained him with a sense of patience and thoughtful action-planning that is especially refreshing.

If clear and cohesive action was the only thing ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but ‘Bumblebee’ overachieves in almost every way. The opening scene is filled with such pitch-perfect fan service that I was on-board from the start. Optimus Prime looks like he is supposed to! Everyone looks like are supposed to! Starscream is there! Soundwave is there! And Ravage! Freaking Ravage!

Gone are muddled and overdesigned messes of gears. This is G1 all the way. My inner-twelve-year-old was already on his feet.


If G1 Transformers was all ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson crafted a heartfelt film that draws spirit from ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘The Iron Giant’ and ‘Short Circuit.’

It may be hard to remember a time before the first ‘Transformers,’ it’s hard to believe there ever was such a halcyon era, but one of the biggest mouthpieces for the first film was executive producer Steven Spielberg. At the time he summoned forth the ‘E.T.’ connection. He said he was first drawn to the project because of the simple story of “a boy and his car.” Unfortunately that took a backseat the to cavalcade of nonsense which would only become more nonsensical as the films went on. Bumblebee was less of a friend to Sam as he was a head-on-a-stick for Shia LeBeouf’s twitchy nerd-bro to shout at.

At the center of ‘Bumblebee’ is Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson. She is a tomboy who exists as more than a caricature of a tomboy. This film is written by a woman. That should be remarked on. Not only because of it’s rarity in blockbuster cinema, but because of the fact that woman characters who are written by women are seldom as well-realized. Charlie is charming, complicated and real. She is a Smiths-loving, edgy 80s alternateen who still crushes on the washboard-stomached brainless hunk who doesn’t know she exists. Haunted by the sudden death of her father, she endlessly works on the car in her garage that her and her dad used to try to fix. She wants a car more than anything and makes regular trips to the junkyard, scavenging for parts. Her dad was a gearhead and her interest in cars is a way to feel closer to him. In many films her interest in cars would be a fetishized machination of hard-hearted toughness. In this film: it is character. If she can make that car run, maybe her dad will still be alive in some way.

It is one of these trips to the junkyard that she finds and old beaten-up VW bug. She tries to start it and the engine tries to turn over. This is more progress than she has ever made with her father’s classic convertible and after some light teasing, her junkyard-owning uncle gives it to her as a birthday gift. I don’t have to tell you the rest because you already know it. And while you’ve seen this story before, that’s perfectly fine because it works in all the right ways. The mute and clumsy Bumblebee is incredibly lovable and it is here where Knight’s animation background once again brings so much. Hailee Steinfeild who showed great promise as a young actress in films like The Coen Brother’s ‘True Grit’ plays Charlie with a depth and tenderness that shames every other human character in the previous films. There are scenes between her and Bumblebee spoken in whispers that illicit a true feeling of connection.


The 80s setting is perfect not only as prequel/reboot but is the source for killer musical moments and endless era-appropriate references. Even if it does read at times like more of a cartoon of the 80s than the actual 80s, as this is based on an 80s cartoon, I’m willing to forgive it.

No throwback to 80s escapism would be complete without it’s narrow-sighted and obsessive military pursuer. And in this case he is played by John Cena. While I have found Cena passable in most of his film work, he is definitely the weakest link in the film. Still, his square-jawed buffoon is not a deal-breaker and even his most cringe-worthy moments never reach a hint of the embarrassment of John Turturro’s insufferable Agent Simmons.

Rounding out the cast are Charlie’s delightfully detached mom played by the always-great Pamela Adlon (‘Better Things’, ‘Louie’) and well-intentioned and clueless stepdad Stephen Schneider (‘Broad City’) who are the perfect representation of 80s Positivity-At-All-Costs parents. Finally is the delightful Jorge Lendeborg Jr. playing Memo, Charlie’s lovelorn sidekick who is so hilariously unnecessary and gets so spectacularly friendzoned that the angry Facebook comments almost write themselves. It’s gloriousbumblebee-excl-crop-no-wm

‘Bumblebee’ didn’t need to be this good. It could have coasted by as a better-than-expected pre-boot and simply sought to do no harm. It’s more than that. Travis Knight’s steady hand as an action director and talent for crafting small moments and Christina Hodson’s focus on characters you care about make this a really special film. ‘Bumblebee’ is not great-by-comparison. It’s simply great. I hope this is not only the launching point for a new series of Transformers films that learn from the copious mistakes of the previous films, but also for some of the most talented new voices in filmmaking.

I hope we can put those other ones behind us now. Maybe now we can start to heal.