It took 11 years, five movies, and the departure of director Michael Bay, but Transformers fans – the fans who grew up on the 1980s animated TV series/Hasbro commercials – finally get the live-action Transformers film, Bumblebee, they’ve always wanted and maybe even needed to help justify their decades-long love of the series. With paired down, grounded visuals, an intimate sense of scale, and an emphasis on the unbreakable bond between a teenaged girl, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), and a fugitive soldier-robot, B-127, from a dying, warring planet of self-aware, transforming machines, plus a nostalgia-heavy ‘80s setting, Bumblebee delivers the first, near great entry in a franchise that had all but dissipated the enormous goodwill of longtime fans with Transformers: The Last Knight two years ago. And it all took was a coherent, compelling script by Christina Hodson (Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Unforgettable) and deceptively competent direction from Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), making his live-action debut after a career in stop-motion animation.
When we meet B-127 (initially voiced by Dylan O’Brien), he’s one of Optimus Prime’s (Peter Cullen) foot soldiers, fighting a losing battle against the superior forces of the Decepticons on his home planet, Cybertron. It’s a scene – however brief – that Transformers fans have waited decades to see in live action. Knight focuses only on a short, eventful battle that sets Prime’s rapidly diminishing forces against the Decepticons, but Prime being Prime, he sacrifices himself so B-127 can make his escape, instructing the young soldier to head for a new safe haven, Earth, where the Autobots under Prime can regroup. Side note: Of course, Prime’s decision, however noble on the surface, will put Earth’s inhabitants directly in the middle of the never-ending war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. But that’s still in the distant future (20 years) for Earth’s inhabitants. B-127 reaches Earth where he’s promptly met with armed resistance from Sector 7 – a super-special, elite military team tasked with handling and/or eliminating extraterrestrial threats – and a Decepticon, Blitzwing (David Sobolov), who followed him to Earth.
Unable to make his case as a political refugee to Sector 7’s reps, B-127 ends up badly damaged and forced to hide as an old VW Beetle beater in a junkyard. That’s where Charlie, soul-sick at the loss of her father and the intrusive presence of a new stepfather in her life, finds B-127. She renames B-127 “Bumblebee” and before long, Bumblebee’s transforming into his true, robotic self and bonding hard with Charlie (they’re both outsiders, connected and eventually united by loss). More childlike and innocent here than in previous, later-in-the-timeline entries, Bumblebee slowly regains his sense of self and along with that sense of self, the suppressed memories of war on Cybertron. Another way to look at Bumblebee: He’s a traumatized war veteran, his innocence and naiveté temporarily restored when he loses his memories and gains a fellow traveler in Charlie and her own, personalized trauma. Their shared connection gives Bumblebee a surprising amount of thematic depth, especially for a character that made his entrance several decades ago on an inexpensive, animated series created solely to sell toys.
Of course, Knight and Hodson never forget that Bumblebee remains part of the Transformers universe and a Transformers movie isn’t a Transformers movie without the obligatory robot-on-robot action. Rather than entire army of Decepticons, Bumblebee faces essentially a recon team (i.e., two other Decepticons, Dropkick and Shatter, voiced by Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett, respectively). Knight, though, delivers more than enough scale, scope, and spectacle to make even the most disheartened Transformers fan shed their deep-seated cynicism and unapologetically embrace Bumblebee. Making Bumblebee face off against two (actually three) larger Decepticons automatically turns him into a root-worthy underdog. To Knight’s credit, he doesn’t milk Bumblebee’s go-it-alone status for cheap emotions. Whatever audiences end up feeling for Bumblebee – and Charlie too, since she’s integral to his growth as a character – always feels earned, never cheap or manipulative. Knight’s background in stop-motion animation also obviously helped turn Bumblebee into a fully realized character. There’s more subtlety and nuance in Bumblebee’s performance in his standalone move than in the five other Transformers movies combined.