Face the facts. Since 2007, Michael Bay has delivered “Transformers” movies that have assaulted the audience. Each movie being bigger and louder and dumber and more visually CGI-infected than the prior version, it was like an evil Decepticon plot to torture humanity. But the Torture-bots have been defeated. The newest “Transformers” movie is like a breath of fresh, clean air from back in 1987. “Bumblebee” is a movie that gives the viewers plenty of robot action, but it transforms into a human-centric exploration of a young kid who finds a close buddy. Of course, the buddy is a 12-foot yellow robot that turns into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Sort of like “The Iron Giant” with wiper blades.
In a faraway universe, Autobots fight against Decepticons on the planet Cybertron. Their leader, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sends a young B-127, later renamed Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), to Earth. The robot from space arrives on Earth, and a soldier named Jack Burns (John Cena) thinks he is an evil out to destroy the planet. Bumblebee escapes an evil Decepticon that followed him to Earth, but in a battle loses his voice box technology. He kills the Decepticon robot and saves Burns, but then Bumblebee malfunctions and turns into the last thing that he saw, a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. He winds up in a junkyard in a small California coastal town.
Also living there is Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl who is troubled by the sudden death of her father. Her family seems to be adapting and moving on with life, but Charlie broods and spends a lot of time working on her dad’s old car. She finds a cute yellow VW Bug in the junkyard. The owner gives Charlie the car on her 18th birthday, and she later finds it is actually Bumblebee. But he has lost his memory and can’t talk, so he cannot communicate with Charlie. She tries to keep Bumblebee a secret from her family, but it gets hard when he accidentally wrecks the house. Her next-door neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has a crush on Charlie and he also finds out the big yellow secret. Bumblebee regains his memory and figures out that Optimus Prime has sent him here to Earth to protect the people and the planet.
But there are two Decepticon robots that come to Earth to search for Bumblebee. These two evil giant robots (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) meet up with Sector 7 Agent Jack Burns, and with a researcher named Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). Powell is misled by the Decepticon robots to believe Bumblebee is a rogue robot who must be captured and interrogated. Burns is not so sure, because the robots want to plug into the military satellite system to search for Bumblebee. This will lead to a big robot battle, and Charlie being put into danger. But Bumblebee has the smarts to defeat the evil robots, if he can get some help from Charlie. Burns and Memo are close to the action, but they are not front and center for the major battle.
“Bumblebee” does have a bunch of giant robot battles and clashes, but it also offers something different. There is bit of light sweetness and some human emotions that were usually missing from earlier ‘Transformer’ movies. The struggle is still there in the background, and it seems important. But there is an emphasis on how a young woman in California in the late 1980’s can rise above pain and sorrow and find a true friend. True, that friend happens to be an Autobot that can change from a VW Bug into a very large robot. But it still does something very special, as compared to the other movies. It does not make the audience feel dumb for watching it. It creates an interesting fantasy world and invites us into to explore with the characters.
Hailee Steinfeld does a very decent job in the role of a downcast young woman with a big yellow secret. John Cena adds some helpful light comedic lines where they are needed. Dylan O’Brien adds a tenderness to the voice of Bumblebee (until his voice box gets maimed). Peter Cullen (as usual) returns to voice the Autobots fearless leader, Optimus Prime. I wonder if he is related to Amazon Prime? Travis Knight has directed this with a sense of wonder and awe for the big metal monsters that turn out to be some of the good guys. The soundtrack has a spot-on selection of songs that you may remember from the 80’s, or just songs you can now hear on the Spotify ‘oldies’ playlist.
“Bumblebee” – This is the first Transformer movie that will get good ‘buzz’.