Movies like Bumblebee divide viewers neatly into two groups. Some people will get excited because Bumblebee is a Transformers movie. Others will avoid it for the same reason.
But I’m delighted to report that Bumblebee is a Transformers movie for both crowds. The film, which is either a spinoff or a prequel depending on how you look at it, fleshes out the backstory of its title character, a lieutenant to Optimus Prime. And yet you don’t need to know who or even what an “Optimus Prime” is to enjoy it.
That’s because, instead of staging a bombastic action cheesefest, Bumblebee self-consciously apes the style of 1980s coming-of-age stories, to great effect. It’s E.T. but with a girl and a car, plus a lot of heart (and ’80s music).
It’s not a big-idea movie, but it’s sweet and funny, and has more in common with the Netflix series Stranger Things than any of the previous Transformers blockbusters. Which, in some ways, makes it the perfect kind of movie for the holidays.
Bumblebee centers on a beloved Transformers character — and the teenage girl he teams up with
Bumblebee starts off in pandemonium, with a lot of Transformers fighting loudly on the planet Cybertron. For the uninitiated, there are two groups — Autobots (the good guys) and Decepticons (the bad guys). They’re at war. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
For reasons that are a little vague, one of the Autobots, a (respectively) little yellow dude named B-127, finds himself alone on the quiet planet of Earth, with a mission to protect the planet’s inhabitants from the Decepticons. He’s crash-landed in a California forest in 1987. But his enemies find him there, and in the fight that ensues, B-127’s voice box is muted. Trying to hide, he spots a Volkswagen Bug and transforms into its likeness, just before he passes out.
He’s still a Bug when Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds him. She’s a disaffected teenager still mourning her late father, while the rest of her family, including her mother (Pamela Adlon), has largely moved on. Charlie has a lousy job at the local carnival, where she makes corn dogs for the rich, cool teens who make fun of her. She doesn’t have any friends. Life kind of sucks.
But Charlie used to work on cars with her father, and she still tinkers. She wants a car of her own. She wants independence. She wants, someday, to be able to leave the tiny home she shares with her mother, stepfather, and brother, and the California town where she feels alone.
Then one day, rooting around in the junkyard for spare parts, Charlie comes upon a little yellow VW Bug. Bees have built a nest in one of its wheel wells, and it doesn’t seem to want to start. But Charlie talks the junkyard owner into letting her have the car, gets it started, and drives it home to her family’s garage.
Of course, it’s not just a Bug. It’s B-127. (Transformers fans know that someday in the future, he’ll become a Camaro, but this is his origin story.) B-127 can’t talk, but when he startles Charlie by changing into his robot form, she nicknames him Bumblebee.
And with that, the movie is off. The beats of Bumblebee are familiar, if you’ve seen movies like E.T. or The Iron Giant. Charlie tries to hide Bumblebee from her family, with limited success — he seems more like an enormous puppy than a car — while also forming a friendship with the boy next door, who has a massive crush on her.
Meanwhile, the military is getting conned by two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux), who are trying to worm their way into the military’s communications infrastructure to enact a dastardly plan that will lead to total world destruction. But Agent Burns (a very funny John Cena) is wary of them.
The stories of Charlie and the military inevitably get tangled, but in a way that serves Charlie’s story more than theirs. Yes, Bumblebee is still a Transformers movie, and there are gonna be some fights. But like many good ’80s teen-angst movies, it’s also a growing-up story — one with a robot-car sidekick who helps along the way.
Bumblebee taps into nostalgia in more ways than one way
There are all kinds of ’80s references in Bumblebee that are meant to invoke nostalgia in viewers of a certain age: games of Pong, various old kitchen appliances, a recurring reference to Judd Nelson’s famous fist-pump at the end of The Breakfast Club.
But one of the movie’s most fun conceits comes because Bumblebee’s deactivated voice box means he can only communicate by scanning the radio dial built into his middle (he is a car, after all) and playing bits of songs from the 1980s whose lyrics express what he’s trying to say. Charlie rolls her eyes at first — she prefers the Smiths — but speaking through his radio is an expression of love from Bumblebee, and every fresh needle drop is delightful for the audience, too.
It sounds massively gimmicky, I know. But director Travis Knight (whose directorial debut was the marvelous Kubo and the Two Strings), working from a screenplay by Christina Hodson, handles moments like these with a light, deft touch that infuses them with charm. It’s weird to say that the bond between Charlie and Bumblebee — who is, again, a robot who is also a car — rivals that of any movie about a kid and his dog, but it’s true. Bumblebee centers on the human-Transformer interaction, and the way that the things we bond with when we’re young, like our toys and pets, can be part of our own growth.
The result feels a lot like what the Transformers movies should have been all along, given that they’re based, initially, on toys first released in 1984, and later on the TV shows and comic books about the toys’ backstory that followed. For plenty of people who are adults now, Transformers were a formative part of their childhood. The apocalyptic modern versions of the story that the blockbusters tell can be interesting — who hasn’t crashed their toys together and imagined epic, world-ending battles? — but it has often come at the expense of any human element.
So in not sacrificing that human element, Bumblebee is a nostalgic delight that taps into not just the 1980s but youth in general. And that (as with Stranger Things) renders its 1980s setting wonderfully appropriate. It is, by nature, derivative — but its rhythm and handling of its source material feels fresh, unexpected, and a lot of fun.
The ending of Bumblebee hints at B-127’s future as a Camaro. He’s all grown up. Someday, Charlie will be too. But she tells her yellow friend that she’ll never forget him, and it rings true: You never quite forget the friends — whether they’re humans, pets, or maybe even a car — that helped you figure out who you are.
Bumblebee opens in theaters on December 21.