Review: Your Five Year Old Will Love ‘Bumblebee’
For the last eleven years, the Transformer franchise has been under the helm of action director Michael Bay. The 2007 original was a fun time to be had, but since then, we’ve received four sequels with each subsequent entry seemingly getting worse and worse. But now, Travis Knight is taking a stab at the franchise’s first spin-off: Bumblebee. Of Kubo and the Two Strings fame, Knight is making his first live action film debut with a franchise that has long needed new blood in the mix to reinvigorate itself. The result is a film that is the best since the original, but also not the most impressive standalone film, resulting in a baseline coming of age tale that just so happens to feature everyone’s favorite transforming cars.
Set in 1987 before any prior film in the series, Bumblebee tracks Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) as she navigates high school in the wake of losing her dad. While the rest of her family has moved on, she still lingers on what use to be. On her eighteenth birthday, she finds a beaten up Volkswagen Beatle, who, as you know, ends up being our titular Autobot, Bumblebee (Bee). Upon discovery, the two form an unlikely friendship, but which is threatened when Decepticons come to Earth in search for Bee.
Genre-wise, the film is a coming of age film akin to what you would find in the 80s. It’s got the look, the character archetypes, and of course, the 80s music soundtrack to make the film feel like a grandchild of the John Hughes era — even making the iconic ending pose from The Breakfast Club a point of cultural connection for Bee. Charlie’s whole character has sprinkles of Andie from Pretty in Pink as her outcast status in high school makes her find solace in friendship with Bee, and there are loads of callbacks, name drops, and easter eggs to find hidden away in the film to give hints of nostalgia if you’re into that. The film is inspired by the 80s and it’s not afraid to show it.
Narratively, if you’ve seen Iron Giant, you’ve seen this film. Distilling the plot to its essence will result in the same movie, and while that doesn’t necessarily make the film bad in its own right, it’s how the film tries to reiterate itself where the film falls short. In my viewing, I couldn’t find the ‘it’ factor where the film diverges from its inspiration. For the most part, it plays it safe, hitting the plot points the film needs to in order for the dramatic narrative function, but it never going beyond that.
Central to the film is the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee. Their bond is like that of Hogarth and the Iron Giant in the sense that they are opposed at first, but come to understand one another as the story progresses. It is the heart of the film, but again, it only facilitates minimal thematic function and never going the extra mile to stake its claim. The whole experience is almost passive. You engage with a few moments and perk up when the action unfolds, but for the most part you’re left on autopilot. It runs the gambit, it checks all the boxes, but not quite going that extra mile.
Which is a shame because Travis Knight presented some promise for the franchise. Post Kubo, there was hope that a new director in the mix could rejuvenate the long stale franchise, but in the end, we got something that was passable. It’s much, much better than the middle entries in the franchise and leagues better than last year’s The Last Knight, but with respect to movies as a whole, it’s just alright.
Bumblebee is a film that your five year old will love. It’ll teach him how a narrative works, what it means to be a friend, and he’ll get to see some explosions along the way. But for someone looking for something deeper, you’ll come up short.