At a Glance
Director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson have finally found life under the hood of the Transformers, with a film that’s touching, funny, and joyous from start to finish.
Hailee Steinfeld is outshone only by her co-star’s big bright eyes, and it’s hard not to root for the pairing to make it back to the big screen soon. For the first time in years, the prospect of more Transformers feels more like a promise than a threat.
Price When Reviewed
Best Prices Today: Bumblebee movie
After five films with steadily declining box office takings and review scores, who would have thought Michael Bay’s stodgy Transformers franchise had an absolute classic up its sleeve? Luckily that’s exactly what Bumblebee is, as a fresh director and some heavy ’80s influences combine to produce the best Transformers film yet – by some margin.
Out in the US from 21 December and the UK from 26 December (aka Boxing Day), you can buy tickets for
Atom Tickets in the US, or from your choice of
Odeon if you’re in the UK. You can also pick up a
collection of all five Transformers movies so far on DVD or Blu-ray if you want to re-watch any of your favourites.
We’ve also sat through the credits so you don’t have to, so if you’re planning to see the film in cinemas make sure to
find out whether there’s a post-credit scene or not first.
Bumblebee is the sixth live-action Transformers film so far, but it’s also a clean break for the franchise. This spin-off prequel is set in 1987, decades before Michael Bay’s first chaotic entry, smartly freeing itself from the built-up canon, while allowing itself a set of ’80s influences that inject fresh life into the series.
The mute yellow Autobot Bumblebee is the film’s robotic focus, as you might guess, stranded alone on Earth in his classic VW Beetle form – the design Michael Bay once rejected in favour of the slicker Camaro. He’s discovered abandoned in a junkyard by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a disaffected teen who works on cars as a way of remembering her late dad.
Of course it’s not long before Charlie discovers what Bumblebee really is, in the process accidentally sending a signal that draws the attention of two Decepticons (as one character wryly notes, the name really is a bit of a red flag), who hunt Bumblebee down, along the way roping in the support of the US military, represented here by John Cena’s Agent Burns.
It’s a refreshingly simple story structure, free from the clutter and double-crosses of Bay’s ever-expanding films, and comfortable embracing a smaller scale that rightly places the film’s full focus on the relationship between Charlie and ‘Bee.
Because at its heart Bumblebee is really just the story of a girl and her robot. Both Charlie and Bumblebee are damaged in different ways when the film finds them, finding ways to fix each other as the film rumbles on. This could be trite in lesser hands, but director Travis Knight draws genuine warmth out of his cold robotic lead, while Steinfeld is utterly convincing as a teen left adrift by her dad’s death, struggling to find her place as the rest of her family seem ready to move on.
They include Pamela Adlon as her exasperated mum and a schlocky Stephen Schneider as her step-dad. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is the amiable best friend, though neither he nor Cena really get much to work with. At least we get Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux as the sneering Decepticon presence, both clearly relishing the chance to ham it up a little behind the mic.
It’s telling that Knight comes from an animation background (his directorial debut was the similarly excellent Kubo and the Two Strings), because Bumblebee’s closest counterpoint is surely Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, to which Knight’s film pays regular homage. A late scene when Bumblebee shifts into a battle mode, his eyes shifting red, seems a direct callback to the traumatic finale to Bird’s classic, and it’s a credit to Bumblebee that the comparison doesn’t feel unearned – or unfavourable.
Amblin classics like E.T. bear their influence too, but the film makes the most of the ’80s setting in more ways than that. From Alf to Rick Astley, the pop culture of the period is ever-present. It’s very much a greatest hits selection – don’t expect anything much more niche than The Smiths – but the broad strokes references feel of a piece with the film’s welcoming, inclusive tone. This is a big, warm, nostalgic hug of a movie, more interested in shared moments than showing off.
Perhaps the best side effect of the setting is the decision to redesign the Transformers themselves, drawing more directly on the cartoon’s chunky aesthetic. The result is robots that are cleaner, simpler, and easier to follow, simultaneously making action sequences more legible and weightier – not to mention tapping directly into old fans’ nostalgia.
It helps that by keeping the scale smaller – the film’s big finale only features three bots – there aren’t nearly as many moving parts to track. That doesn’t make things any less exciting though. Every fight or chase packs real emotional whallop, and Knight also finds time to delight in more casual carnage: one of the film’s best sequences is the extended slapstick of ‘Bee bumbling around Charlie’s house, destroying just about everything except the dog in the process.
The film loses its way ever so slightly in the final act, getting slightly bogged down in the build-up to the big fight as it rehashes emotional beats a little too often in the attempt to manoeuvre everyone into position for the finale. By that point you’ll likely be too swept up in it all to mind though.
Knight and writer Christina Hodson have finally found life under the hood of the Transformers, with a film that’s touching, funny, and joyous from start to finish.
Steinfeld is outshone only by her co-star’s big bright eyes, and it’s hard not to root for the pairing to make it back to the big screen soon. For the first time in years, the prospect of more Transformers feels more like a promise than a threat.