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The Transformers franchise has become as massive as the giant robots that make it up. It's big business at the box office but in the end, if you're not there explicitly to see giant robots knock buildings down, then there just isn't much else there to get you excited. Bumblebee, however, is something a little different, and different is good. It's the first franchise spinoff, which focuses on the single fan-favorite title character rather than two massive armies of robots, and in shrinking the story down to a manageable size, Bumblebee has been able to do something no other movie in the series has been able to accomplish -- get the audience to get emotionally invested in a Transformer.
Bumblebee is a prequel story that takes place in 1987 and opens as the Autobots' war on their homeworld of Cybertron has taken a turn for the worse. The good guys are evacuating the planet and leader Optimus Prime tasks the young Bumblebee (briefly voiced by Dylan O'Brien) with going to Earth to set up the planet as a sort of safe house for the rest of our heroes. Bumblebee lands in the middle of a military training exercise led by Agent Burns (John Cena), which sets the army after him. Between them and a single Decepticon that trailed him to Earth, our yellow hero is severely damaged, losing his voice and his memory and forcing him to go into hiding as a yellow Volkswagon Beetle.
Eventually, 18-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the car in a junkyard and takes it home to fix it up. However, by bringing Bumblebee back to life, she unknowingly alerts a couple of Decepticons to his presence.
With the possible exception of the random appearance by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Transformers: The Last Knight, Hailee Steinfeld is probably the greatest actor to ever appear in a Transformers movie, and it shows. She instantly has more chemistry with this giant robot, or any other human character, than anybody else in the franchise. Of course, her co-star isn't half bad either. The gimmick of the previous films, where Bumblebee uses his radio to communicate, is something this film brings on gradually, and even once it's established it's never overdone. This gives the silent robot a child-like quality that is instantly endearing.
Another performance worthy of note is that of John Cena. Bumblebee marks his highest profile performance to date and he makes the most of it with a role that lets him be both action star and comedian. He pulls off both well.
Bumblebee is an 80s movie. That's not because it takes place in the 80s, but rather because it feels like a movie that came from the decade. The comparisons to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial are obvious, as a human befriends an alien and tries to hide him from the military. But Bumblebee is clearly meant to fall on the homage side of the line rather than feel like a copycat. The movie doesn't simply feel like it wants to take place in the 80s, it feels like it was actually filmed then. Director Travis Knight has perfectly captured the tone and style of an "80s movie."
Since the 80s were the heyday of the Transformers, Bumblebee plays into that nostalgia in a big way. In addition to Bumblebee being the style of vehicle he was back then, rather than having the sports car body of the main film franchise, the other Transformers that we do see, however briefly, look much more like their 80s toy counterparts. The opening sequence of the film looks like what would happen if you re-made Transformers: The Movie with modern computers.
Nostalgia cuts both ways of course. A little can be a welcome addition to a story, too much can make a story feel like it's trying too hard to push your buttons. There were a few too many 80s pop culture references for my taste. many of them were obviously there for no reason beyond getting the laugh that comes with audience recognition.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Transformers movie if it didn't have massive explosions, and giant robots shooting each other with lasers. Not to worry, Bumblebee has that, and while the action sequences are smaller simply by virtue of the fact that that there are fewer robots around, fans of the franchise should still enjoy themselves.
Bumblebee doesn't reinvent the wheel. The story is pretty formulaic but Travis Knight clearly knows exactly what ingredients are needed to make this particular formula work as well as it can. We're almost certainly going to continue to get more Transformers movies. If it has to happen, can we get more like Bumblebee?