When the announcement was made that the Transformers franchise was expanding it filled me with dread. After the first film, that was reasonably entertaining, there have been diminishing returns from the franchise with the last two in particular being bloody awful, and long, so, so long. What sparked hope though as it was a film about Bumblebee, the most interesting character in the franchise and that it would be under the guidance of Travis Knight who has a track record of great animated films from his Laika studios imprint. So it is not a surprise that the film was considered a success with a $400 million box office and now talk of a direct sequel.
The film starts at the fall of Cybertron. The Decepticons are overrunning the Autobots defences. In a last ditch attempt to preserve anything good scout ship B-127 is dispatched to Earth to establish a base for the Autobots to regroup. Upon arrival he disrupts a Sector 7 training exercises in California before getting ambushed by the decepticon Blitzwing. The ensuing fight sees B127s memory core and voice box damaged. Despite extensive injuries B-127 scans a nearby VW Beetle. Some time later he is found by teenager Charlie Watson who works at the local junk yard. She takes the car to fix up and is more than surprised to see what she has parked in her garage.
What this film does differently is the way it presents itself. The story, a prequel of sorts to the original film, is a straightforward story and the film makers decide to use that as the blueprint for the whole film. So, we get Transformers that are a lot closer to the original cartoon iterations. They are less cluttered in appearance which is a major bonus in almost every way. The few robot on robot fight scenes are far more straightforward and the movie benefits for it. There is a tangible sense of the choreography of the scenes with the action being clear and concise. Previously there were a lot of blurring as the robots battled which, in my case, led to a bit of confusion and a lack of enjoyment.
With the film set in the nineteen eighties, there is more than a nod to the great family films of that decade. Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemekis and John Hughes film are all referenced throughout which results in the film coming across like a tribute to Amblin movies in particular. Music elements and extensive needle drops are used in order to back this up. There is a particularly good running gag about The Smiths which is really clever.
Hailee Steinfeld is perfect in the role of Charlie. Her character is a bit adrift at the start of the film. She is mourning the death of her father and is struggling to connect with her family and friends. For once in this franchise we get a relatable female character. There are no salacious shots of her draped over a car which is a refreshing change for the transformers movies. Charlie is a person who is a good example of a woman who is capable, intelligent and is able to handle situations herself using her mind.
Her interaction with Bumblebee forms the core of the film. There is a genuine chemistry between them which has to come down Steinfeld’s skill as an actor and the CG team behind the robot itself. He has been simplified in his design so there is plenty of scope for the addition of a range of expressions that really bring the character to life. The fact that he has no memory or voice lends to some excellent comedic moments as he starts to learn about life. It is like seeing the various stages of growth, including the difficult teenage years.
Bumblebee represents the best of the entire Transformers franchise. Admittedly not a particularly high bar but it is a fine and thoroughly enjoyable movie.