The Pitch: It’s 1987, and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is dealing with the death of her father by throwing herself into her passion for fixing up old cars. On her 18th birthday, she fixes up an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle, only to find out it’s – get this – a robot in disguise, which she names Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien, as the voice). Before long, however, Charlie and Bee are embroiled in an intergalactic war when a pair of Decepticons travel to Earth looking for Bee, roping in a vengeful Sector 7 soldier named Jack Burns (John Cena) to help them.
Herbie Fully Transformed: Love them or hate them (the latter is most likely), Michael Bay’s Transformers films are big, angry, juvenile, and jingoistic, attributes which Bumblebee refreshingly backs away from at every possible turn. Everything about Bumblebee feels like a fresh start for the franchise: director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) strips down the Transformers aesthetic to something cleaner and more coherent, the robot designs looking more like elevated versions of the old ‘80s toys than the crumpled tinfoil looks of Bay’s designs. Knight’s approach is a bit more straightforward, which can lead to some visual redundancy – this is his first live-action film, after all, and he may have wanted to tread carefully – but at least you can tell what’s going on.
The real charm of Bumblebee comes in its central relationship, which the film spends way more time on than the robot-on-robot action. Apart from some flashbacks to Cybertron, there’s really only Bee and the two Decepticons to contend with, making this the least Transformers-y Transformers film to date. Screenwriter Christina Hodson takes a charmingly earnest approach to Charlie and Bee’s budding friendship; there’s a real Iron Giant dynamic between the two, both robots being amnesiac war machines who can flip from gentle to terrifying at the drop of a hat. Steinfeld has played this kind of frustrated teenager expertly before (ironically, Charlie is also on the edge of seventeen) and she’s lovely here, bouncing wonderfully off the naïve, effervescent Bee and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.’s hapless prospective love interest Memo. As for Bee himself, he’s a much more charming creation in isolation from the murderous Autobots of Bay’s world, a sweet bull in a china shop who loves egging cars and giving out robot hugs.
Much of the bubbly simplicity of Bumblebee comes with its ‘80s setting, another way Knight isolates his film’s optimism from Bay’s cynicism. While Bumblebee nakedly cobbles together elements from various ‘80s misfits movies (E.T., The Goonies, The Breakfast Club), it’s done with enough of a wink that it feels earned. Imagine Stranger Things if Eleven was a big yellow robot, and you’ll have a good idea of how Bumblebee puts nostalgia to effective use. If nothing else, it makes for the best possible use of Bee’s new “voice,” in which he speaks through snippets of songs and speech over the radio: there’s plenty of opportunity for some great needle-drops here.
Cena It All Before: While watching Bee and Charlie grow as friends is incredibly charming, Bumblebee occasionally remembers it’s still a Transformers movie, and that’s where the film becomes less compelling. The idea of Bee being part of an intergalactic conflict he can barely remember is a wonderful one, but Bumblebee spends far too much time on MacGuffins and technobabble with the Decepticons as they search for the lost Autobot. It’s cool to see the Decepticons actually deceiving for once, as they convince the American military they’re intergalactic space police hunting down a violent criminal. But most of that is manifested in grim, grey boardrooms and laboratories, while John Ortiz’s dorky scientist endlessly exposits about their technology and cautions about the Soviets getting hands on it.
Then we get to the film’s second lead, John Cena, the latest member of Hollywood’s new cabal of Adorkable Beefy Leading Men (see also: The Rock, Channing Tatum). As Agent Burns, his screen time is mostly relegated to barking orders and hunting down robots. (To be fair, he does get the best line of the film when his superiors discuss the possibility of working with the Decepticons: “They’re called Decepticons! That doesn’t raise any red flags to you?”) As Trainwreck and Blockers have shown us, Cena’s got charisma and comic timing for days, but Burns feels like a waste of his talents. Just team him up with Bumblebee for the sequel as his hapless foil, and The Doctor of Thuganomics will finally get his due.
The Verdict: It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Bumblebee feels revolutionary within the confines of a long-running franchise like Transformers. Knight’s approach may not be as visually distinct as Bay’s, but that also translates to clearer action and a much sweeter worldview. Between its pared-down tale of a girl discovering her best friend and its charming ‘80s aesthetic, Bumblebee works hard to inject some sorely needed energy (Energon?) into a series meant mostly to sell toys. Still, just like ‘80s kids projected a lot of affection and love onto their toys, so too does Charlie project onto Bee – in this way, it might be the most accurate and positive portrayal of a kid’s relationship with their toys to come along in a good long while.
Where’s It Playing?: Bumblebee rolls out into theaters on Friday, December 21st