If you had told me there'd be any chance whatsoever that I'd have found myself genuinely entertained by Bumblebee, I'd have laughed.
I mean really laughed.
But, there I was sitting there in the movie theater genuinely enjoying myself watching this surprisingly entertaining motion picture, an 80's set, prequel of sorts to Michael Bay's relentlessly disappointing Transformer films.
Of course, we know the difference. Don't we?
There's no Michael Bay to be found here. While Bay is not solely to blame for the cinematically awful box-office gems known as Transformers, there's simply no denying that as the filmmaker he gets the brunt of the blame for their generally undeniable awfulness.
Bumblebee isn't awful. In fact, Bumblebee is surprisingly good, not brilliant mind you, but genuinely good and entertaining and action-packed and occasionally funny and even a little touching.
There's no other way to say it. Bumblebee transforms the Transformers franchise in a way I never would expect and in a way I'm guessing a good majority of film critics would have never expected. I picture groups of film critics gathering around after their promo screenings mumbling to one another "Did you enjoy that? I enjoyed that!"
There's another true confession, at least for this film critic.
I've never quite been convinced by Hailee Steinfeld, not even considering that out of the gate Academy Award nomination she snagged for True Grit.
I like her. It's not like I have anything against. It's just that as an actress she's always sort of left me feeling "meh."
That's what I expected here. I mean, you basically have Transformers meets Hailee Steinfeld meets John Cena.
That's a recipe for "meh" in my book.
Only Bumblebee isn't a "meh" film. It's not quite a "wow" film, but it's definitely not a "meh" film. It's more like a "That was pretty darn nice!" film.
Paramount and director Travis Knight have wisely scaled down Bay's over-the-top, headache inducing antics in favor of an approach that hints at being Spielbergian and is easily the best film to come out of the Transformers universe. It's genuinely entertaining, engaging, and even the action sequences are so vastly superior to the Transformers films that you'll find yourself asking "Where has this Travis Knight actually been?"
The truth may actually surprise you. Knight is a 2-time Oscar nominee for his animation work on the films The Boxtrolls and the lovely Kubo and the Two Strings. He also directed Kubo, his first directorial effort and proof that he's no fluke.
Knight can direct and if he can manage to reverse the godawfulness of a critically dastardly franchise like the Transformers films then this is someone that we need to hear from again and again.
Bumblebee takes a familiar set-up, lonely teenager meets surprisingly hospitable and protective alien creature, and turns it into one of late 2018's most rewarding and entertaining surprises.
The lonely teenager is Charlie, which takes us back to Hailee Steinfeld and her rather action-tinged, emotionally honest performance as a young girl whose complicated grief over the death of her father manifests in an overwhelming desire to fix up some broken down auto just like she and her dad used to do in the good ole' days. I mean, oh sure, this is all familiar but Christina Hodson's script treats it with respect and dignity and gently layers in more complexity than in all the Transformers films combined.
Bumblebee, for those who don't know, is the adorable Transformer. While nothing adorable has ever really come out of the Transformers films, in this film Charlie's discover of this seemingly broken down yellow VW Beetle with a secret life of its own is filled with life and energy and spirit and so many "aw shucks" moments that for a few minutes you may even think you've stumbled into old episodes of The Love Bug.
Okay, that might be a stretch.
There's never any doubt that Charlie and Bumblebee will form a bond. There's also never any doubt that bond will be threatened by a military that always responds to feeling threatened with relentless force, in this case personified by John Cena's easily rattled Agent Burns and those familiar Decepticons.
The film's final third is still action-packed, though Knight and Hodson have built in such a strong story and such compelling characters that the action, while somewhat disappointing, makes sense and is incredibly more coherent than Bay's hand-held, in your face shakeathon style of filmmaking.
Bumblebee isn't life-changing cinema and it's definitely not landing anywhere near my year-end "best of" lists. That's perfectly fine, because sometimes you just go to the movie theater to be entertained and Bumblebee weaves together all the movie magic that Travis Knight can muster and shows us exactly why generations of kids, and more than a few adults, fell in love with the Transformers in the first place. Bumblebee actually is adorable here and Hailee Steinfeld is equally adorable and pretty darn wonderful along the way, supported by Cena's usual dependable turn and an ensemble cast that seems to have bought into Knight's enlightened, well informed and truly inspired film that shows us all just how wonderful a Transformers film can be.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic