If memory serves, my first piece of Transformers merchandise was a Decepticon that turned into a hammerhead shark. I remember seeing it at the store and begging my mom to get it for me. Oddly enough, she actually did. And with the magic of owning a Transformer comes the bitter taste of disappointment. No matter how hard I tried, I don’t think I ever managed to get that dang robot to transform. It always got stuck in a half-transformed bundle of anger and frustration.
Much like that toy I had as a child, the Transformers franchise never satisfied me. Sure, giant robot fights were super cool back in 2007, when the first Transformers movie came out, but man are those movies terrible. I only managed to ever make it through two of them, and most of those viewings have been purged from my memory.
In order, here are all the things remaining in my head that I remember from said films:
• Why was everyone so sweaty? Shia Labeouf is drenched in sweat at all times, as is his girlfriend Megan Fox, and pretty much any non-robot character on screen.
• Megan Fox was a thing back in the late 2000s.
• I think Bumblebee peed some sort of robot fluid on a guy in the first movie.
• Optimus Prime fights a nondescript Decepticon on a highway, and they become a CGI whirlwind that blends together into a gray mush.
• At some point, they have robot dinosaurs.
Suffice it to say, that action figure from when I was a kid — and the 2000s films — really left me with no desire whatsoever to ever watch a Transformers movie again. But then I saw the trailer for Bumblebee and it actually looked...good?
For one, this movie seems marketed to a younger audience. Who would have thought that a movie based on toys and a cartoon would work better if it was made for kids? The film predicates itself on a simple premise and has fun with itself within that structure. Simple enough for a kid to understand, but engaging enough for a kid at heart to ride along and not get bored.
Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a misunderstood teen in the late ’80s. Her mom and family have moved on from the death of the family’s patriarch while Charlie is still stuck in her grief. She finds relief from her sorrow by working on a project car that she had started with her dad before he passed away. Through her solitary efforts in the garage, Charlie is trying to come to terms with what has happened to her life and trying to figure out what to do next.
That next step turns out to be taking care of a giant space robot.
Bumblebee and its eponymous character don’t feel beholden to the Michael Bay chaotic interpretations that have come before. Bumblebee actually looks like a Transformer, bright yellow and cartoonishly designed, and it is an absolute joy to see him in action in a world that isn’t drenched in a muted color-graded world. I mean, the movie opens up with a giant battle on Cybertron, and all the robots are colorful. It’s like seeing the old cartoon come to life, and It. Is. Awesome.
Again, making a movie based on a kid’s TV show, and having it actually look like its source material, turns out to be a slam dunk. Steinfeld is a delight onscreen, playing off her CGI co-star and human co-stars with a youthful exuberance that is never dull to watch. Her stoic moments hold weight as well, seeing as the actress can hold her own, even in a film where giant robots fight each other multiple times.
Speaking of fights, the action in these films is better than any of the fights I’ve seen in previous installments. The distinct, colorful designs make it super easy to distinguish Bumblebee from his Decepticon foes, and being able to see what’s going on makes the fight even cooler to watch. Even the car chases sans robots are thrilling, making this film just a fun romp throughout.
Granted, there’s only so much you can do with a film about warring space robots that turn into cars and planes, but Bumblebee knows what the audience wants and delivers. Amidst the action, there’s also a touching coming-of-age story nestled against a tried and true boy-and-his-dog film. I personally have a soft spot for films about people having giant robots as pets, but the familiar ground tread in Bumblebee isn’t detrimental to me. Some may find it tired and lacking, which is a fair point, but I am not in that camp.
While Steinfeld is wonderful, the rest of the cast doesn’t quite reach her level. John Cena makes a valiant effort, but he’s still just a wrestler breaking into acting. He’s fun, but he isn’t winning any Oscars for his role as an angry soldier chasing Bumblebee. The two Decepticons are hammy as all get out, and I think it fits in perfectly with this world the film is setting up; but I believe this franchise is trying to head in a direction. This may turn off fans of the previous films.
This movie is fun and serves as a soft reboot for the entire Transformers franchise. If the sweaty, convoluted mythology of the previous movies is what you’re looking for, then you may want to skip this. But if you’re willing to give this a chance and are open to having a fun time watching a girl and her giant robot best friend have an unforgettable summer together, then roll out and watch Bumblebee.
Oh, and Optimus Prime actually looks like Optimus Prime in this. It’s freaking great.
Bumblebee is rated PG-13. It is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digitally.
3 ½ stars out of 5
Oscar Chavez Castaneda is the Montrose Daily Press’ film critic. Find out more about him on hi website, oscarchavezcastaneda.com. He will review a movie new to theaters or a new DVD release every other week.