There's been a lot of talk about how Bumblebee is the best Transformers film to date. That doesn't really mean a lot by itself, considering all the Transformers were pieces of trash that should've long ago been scrapped and sold for parts to the nearest junkyard run by a terrible businessman who didn't care how worthless a thing he/she is being sold. So, Bumblebee being superior to its predecessors isn't exactly setting the bar too high.
What does set the bar high is that Bumblebee is one of the most heartfelt action blockbusters of this year, a robot-on-robot extravaganza that also finds its roots in 80s coming of age films.
John Hughes's Breakfast Club is a classic about a group of misunderstood teenagers who just needed someone to just let them be themselves, to come to terms with their own issues and insecurities. Bumblebee's two protagonists find themselves in a similar situation, judged to be unwanted elements of society when all they need is a little compassion and empathy.
Bumblebee arrives on Earth in 1987, having been sent here by his comrades to scope out the planet and keep it ready for his fellow freedom fighter Autobots's arrival. But immediately, he is misconstrued to be a threat to mankind simply because he is something we can't comprehend. He meets and seeks shelter with Charlie, an 18 year old girl still recovering from the death of her beloved father and seeking the right companionship. The two lost, alienated souls form a selfless friendship that transcends language and species.
Travis Knight, the director of the warm and inventive stop motion animated film Kubo and The Two Strings, takes over the franchise from manchild and terrible filmmaker Michael Bay, and you can instantly tell that the creative force behind Bumblebee isn't a sexist, self-pleasuring idiot who just wants to play with his toys but instead someone who treats his characters with love and manages to humanize Bumblebee within the first few minutes of the film, something Bay didn't manage across 5 films.
The choice of a human companion in the form of a teenage girl completely removes all pretence of macho bravado, instead lending the proceedings some much needed vulnerability and a strong emotional core that guides the film throughout, including the action scenes. Knight's action isn't as much about scale and carnage as much as it is about moving the story forward at all times. He constantly finds ways to mix the action and character and story seamlessly, so that there's never an extended period in the film during which you are just staring at the screen without any idea of who is punching the metal out of who. It's clean, decipherable action choreography (aided by effective editing) that goes up a notch due to the stakes in the plot.
The soundtrack distinguishes the film instantly as well, with a great mix of 80s rock songs that again have significance to both Bumblebee and Charlie's characters, for which the credit goes to writer Christina Hodson.
Hailee Steinfeld managed to pleasantly surprise me with her performance as Charlie. I've never particularly cared for her before this but she is genuine and shows a real attachment to the fictional character of Bumblebee that makes the audience instantly connect with both her and her friend. Bumblebee goes through majority of the film without speaking but his eyes and his body language say a lot about his own emotional states. The VFX is spot on and Bumblebee is adorable as hell. John Cena is effective as a military man out to get the Autobots and he is mostly effective.
Too often, action blockbusters are all flash and no heart. Bumblebee, a yellow robot/yellow VW Beetle car, gets saluted by an army man after saving the world and recreates the Breakfast Club's iconic final shot in response. If this doesn't manage to get your emotions going, maybe the world deserves Michael Bay.
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