Somewhere after giant robot balls, LaBeouf taking leave and a guest appearance from Buzz Aldrin, Transformers started to gain rust. On a path of sheer Bayhem since the beginning, the CGI boom-a-thon franchise got louder, longer and majorly lacking in entertainment. Initially, longtime producer of the film series, Steven Spielberg (never heard of him) was drawn to the opening chapter because of the core story; a boy and his first car. Thankfully, it’s this relatable nugget from that now 11-year-old film and even some of Spielberg’s own, that Bumblebee works into its newly constructed chassis, courtesy of Travis Knight.
Assuring fans of the original robots in disguise that they’re in for a film fond of the classic property it’s based on, the Kubo and the Two Strings director drops us down on the war-torn planet of Cybertron from the get-go, as the Autobots and Decepticons are going at it. It’s a scene almost directly from the 80’s toy commercial that was disguised as a TV show, and it’s pretty beautiful. No pointy, CGI chunks of metal indistinguishable from one another, but the original rock’em sock ’em robots of yesteryear duking it out. From there Bumblebee flees the scene heading to Earth circa 1987, just as struggling teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), still mourning from the loss of her father, builds hopes to leave her woes behind when she gets her own set of wheels. Said set just happen to be an amnesic robot with an FM stereo for a voicebox.
The clue is in the title that this is about one particular and beloved Autobot, rather than two titanium tribes going to war, and that comes almost as a blessing. Knight (already established in animation) does a brilliant job of spending so much time on Bee and giving him more character than he’s had since his arrival in the first film. Waking from his slumber in a junkyard and missing his voice (the how and why of which is finally explained), he immediately cowers in the corner of the garage when he spies Charlie, stirring memories of E.T. and The Iron Giant. It’s clear the director has his Spark in the right place, ensuring to focus on this relationship, while still finding time to have CGI characters beat the scrap out of one another, but not to the degree of carnage Mr Bay is known for.
When Bee goes toe-to-toe with Decepticons, Shatter, and Dropkick (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux, respectively) who have all but Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena) fooled, it’s contained and with minimum amounts of destruction. There’s barely a fleeing extra in sight, giving more time for Knight to flesh out these warring pixellated opponents. Bassett’s scheming and Theroux’s sociopathic counterparts are as enjoyable to watch as the hi-tech love bug they’re hunting down. It’s what fans hope to see most of, after all. Unfortunately, the one thing that even Knight can’t nail that Bay struggled with are the human characters that do get involved.
There’s no doubt that Steinfeld’s wonder and charm as Charlie is where the film shines, but there are some significant potholes in the road anytime another Earthling opens their mouth. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Charlie’s potential love interest, Memo, can’t conjure the sheepishly smitten boy next door and lacks any chemistry with his co-star, which pumps the brakes anytime they share the screen. There’s also that ongoing issue that’s plagued the film since the LaBeouf era; the comical parents. However long it may have been for Charlie to recover from her father’s death, the rest of the family seem almost entirely unaware of his existence. Both mother and new father figure instead are too busy being awkward, safety conscious folks to connect with Charlie, making you question if they’re even related.
That being said, these interactions are scarce enough for the girl and her robot mate to recover, and they do so to make for the most tolerable chapter of the Transformers films since they rolled off the production line. This franchise may finally be getting back on the road for the better, and it has Knight at the wheel to thank for it.