Travis Knight, lead animator for Laika Entertainment, turns out to be an inspired choice to tackle the Transformers prequel, Bumblebee. Where Michael Bay’s vision expanded this toy-to-TV franchise to increasingly over-the-top proportions, Knight and his collaborators wisely focus on the nostalgia and the baked-in affection for the original property.
Set in the 1980s, where the main characters look far more like they did when originally introduced by Hasbro to a generation of kids, Bumblebee focuses on building a relationship between the hapless, damaged lead character and his human friend. There’s loads of E.T.-meets-Herbie Goes Bananas business on display here, but removed is the smarminess that marred Bay’s films.
The contrast to the first Transformers movie is instructive. Although we still get a stumbling robot faltering around a suburban environment, the biggest mistake in the earlier version was turning the regal Optimus Prime into comic relief, stripping out any dignity from the supposed leader. The character of Bumblebee, however, is ripe for such revelry. As an action figure, he was both smaller and cheaper on the toy racks, and thus got picked up by more kids who developed affection for the character. His automotive disguise as a yellow VW Beetle, with rounded curves that defined the “people’s car” from its original incarnation, provides a more direct connection between object and individual than the rest of the angular trucks or military vehicles that populated the toy line.
It’s OK if Bumblebee stumbles, because that just echoes the awkwardness and missteps that characterize adolescence. The film finds its real heart in the storyline of a young, grieving girl (played note-perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld). For such a big, brash blockbuster, the movie surprisingly pays as much attention to narrative as spectacle.
This balance is what best exemplifies Knight’s contribution. Along with screenwriter Christina Hodson, he knows exactly which emotional strings to pull to make the spectacle feel not only relevant but welcome. The unabashed nostalgia plays out with a mid-’80s soundtrack and warmly realized moments at a theme park. As much detail goes into making sure the hand-dipped corndogs feel real as the giant robots fighting, and that’s very much to the film’s benefit.
In fact, the battle bits may be the most undercooked, if only because their scope can only seem underwhelming after the apocalyptic battles that Bay unleashed. No Giza pyramids or any towers in downtown Chicago were harmed in the making of Bumblebee.
John Cena has loads of fun on screen, making the most of his two-dimensional tough guy. Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is adorable as the awkward kid next door secretly in love with the lead, which provides a fine gender shift on another ’80s kid-film trope.
Knight’s background in animation infuses Bumblebee with some great physical presence, from the robot meekly cowering in the corner of a garage to some cute sight gags while traveling down suburban streets. Most of all, a sense of playfulness comes through. That’s a welcome reminder that this is all supposed to be fun. The film succeeds by dialing things back to the core relationship between characters, even if one is virtual.
Bumblebee transforms Bay’s dark vision for the franchise into a more welcoming and character-driven piece by stripping out much of the excess and finding a simply story of a young girl and her newfound friend. Think of it as Old Yellow, a twist on the kid-with-pet tale, but without quite as bleak an ending. What it lacks for in magnitude, it makes up in genuine affection for the source material, and finds a perfect balance between respecting the past and crafting something that feels new and relevant.