By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Film Critic
It should come as no surprise that one of the best “Transformers” movies to hit the big screen focuses on most everyone’s favorite Transformer.
Set in 1987, Paramount Pictures’ “Bumblebee” (directed by “Kubo and the Two Strings’” Travis Knight) is the long-awaited “Transformers” prequel that tells the story of how alien robot Bumblebee—and the rest of the Transformers—first came to Earth. Although not as action-packed as some of the previous “Transformers” films, audiences are immediately thrown into the civil war for Cybertron as Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen) holds off the Decepticons just long enough for the rest of the Autobots to evacuate the Transformers’ home planet. He tells B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien, “Teen Wolf”) to take refuge on Earth and promises to reunite with him there once it’s safe.
Although B-127 is told to protect Earth once he gets there, he immediately finds himself under attack after crash-landing in California and accidentally disrupting a training exercise being conducted by a secret government agency, Sector 7. As B-127 attempts to tell Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (WWE Superstar John Cena, “Blockers”) that he’s not the enemy and meant no harm, Decepticon Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov, “The Flash”) shows up having been hot on his trail. B-127 manages to fight off his enemy so he can’t share his whereabouts with the other Decepticons, but not before Blitzwing damages his memory core and destroys his voice box. B-127’s final action before entering stasis? Scanning a nearby Volkswagen Beetle and transforming into its mirror image to protect his identity.
That yellow Beetle eventually ends up at a scrapyard that Charlie Watson (Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”) frequents for parts to restore another vehicle she used to repair with her dearly departed dad. Desperate for a car and getting nowhere with the one in her family’s garage, she asks if she can work at the scrapyard to pay for the mysterious vehicle—which now houses a hive full of bumblebees. Instead, the scrapyard’s owner, Hank (Len Cariou, “Blue Bloods”), gives her the dilapidated car as a gift for her 18th birthday.
While repairing the vehicle at home, Charlie accidentally activates a homing signal that is detected in space by Decepticons Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett, “American Horror Story”) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux, “Wanderlust”), who quickly fly to Earth to convince Sector 7 that B-127 is a dangerous criminal they’ve come to capture. Meanwhile, Charlie discovers her new VW Beetle is actually anything but and develops a close friendship with the amnesiac B-127, whom she lovingly calls “Bumblebee.”
The rest of the 113-minute film follows Charlie, Bumblebee and Charlie’s smitten new neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., “Love, Simon”) as they discover the truth about Bumblebee and eventually try to save the planet from the Decepticons. Along the way, there are plenty of comical and heartfelt moments between the trio, including a hilarious scene where they go to egg some mean girl’s house, while the script by Christina Hodson (“Unforgettable”) works to shed some light on Bumblebee’s backstory—like how he learns to communicate through the radio.
Since most of the film focuses on just three Transformer characters—Bumblebee, Shatter and Dropkick—the dizzying action scenes that have become synonymous with the previous five “Transformers” films directed by Michael Bay are pretty much nonexistent here. Whenever there is an action scene it’s typically much easier to follow, as each character is easy to identify based on their familiarity and color.
The action scenes are kept to a minimum, though, as most of “Bumblebee” focuses on the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee and how each character brings the other one back to life. While Charlie works to restore Bumblebee’s memory, Bumblebee reminds Charlie of what it’s like to be happy again following her father’s fatal heart attack.
Steinfeld delivers a strong performance as the emotionally shutdown teenager, though—as typical with all of the “Transformers” films—Bumblebee’s adorable actions steal almost every scene. The rest of the cast is commendable in their respective parts as well, although Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”) as Charlie’s mom and Stephen Schneider (“Broad City”) as Charlie’s stepdad aren’t quite as funny as Kevin Dunn and Julie White were as Sam’s (Shia LaBeouf) parents in the original “Transformers” trilogy.
Given how important music is in telling Bumblebee’s story, it’s a nice touch that the film’s ’80s-inspired soundtrack leaves such a lasting impression. Naturally, the film’s catchy closing number, “Back to Life,” is performed by actress-singer Steinfeld, who previously showed off her pipes on the big screen in the “Pitch Perfect” sequels.
While “Bumblebee” is far from being the “Black Panther” of the “Transformers” universe (the franchise hasn’t made a film that good yet), it’s well deserving of the critical acclaim it’s received. The fun family flick is sure to entertain both kids and adults alike and features a nice balance of humor, heart and action. Even those who have previously written off the “Transformers” movies should check it out—they might be pleasantly surprised.