To watch Bumblebee is to be caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between two different movies. One is a forgettable blockbuster and wannabe franchise reboot about toys from the 1980s, and the other is an efficient if not novel throwback to children’s adventure films of that decade like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. In the end, Bumblebee works as well as it does because of director Travis Knight’s willingness to lean more heavily on the latter than the former, possibly as much as a major studio nowadays would allow.
Bumblebee is genuinely bad for the first 10 minutes, which mistake the titular robot for the lead character and are accordingly as boring and emotionally inert as you would expect a movie about a giant action figure to be. Parents who take their children to see the film will likely spend the lengthy prologue, a nearly incomprehensible cartoon pitting faceless toys against other toys, sinking into their seats with a sense of grim resignation. Mercifully, Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit appears shortly thereafter as the film’s real heroine. Bumblebee’s human foil could be a rather thankless part to play, but Steinfeld plays it well enough that Bumblebee becomes her robot foil instead. She knows what kind of movie she is in and summons the appropriate levels of earnestness, guarded snark, and vulnerability by turns; she holds the film together, and it repays her effort by recentering itself around her. His name may be on the poster, but Bumblebee is not about Bumblebee. Like the best of the films it pays such loving homage to, it is about a young person navigating the difficulties of a troubled family, and Knight understands that while the giant robot may take prominence in the advertising campaign, when it comes to the actual story, it is not an end in itself but a catalyst for the healing of human hurts. For Steinfeld’s Charlie, that hurt is the emotional void left by the death of her father, and Bumblebee’s role is to imperfectly fill that void, for a time.
The first Transformers film, released just over a decade ago, featured at least a dozen robots in disguise and a climax that lasted for over half an hour – figures that ballooned with each sequel. Bumblebee’s main story, by contrast, involves no more than three Transformers: a good one and two bad ones, which are excellent odds as far as drama goes, because it is always easier to root for an underdog. (Knight also wisely makes Bumblebee smaller than his adversaries, and less visually intimidating – all bright colors, no sharp corners.) There is still a big action climax with explosions and fighting, but as far as these things go, it is a respectably intimate affair – as intimate as can be, at least, when the participants are 25-foot-tall robots that turn into cars, helicopters, and fighter jets.
The story is appreciably limited in scale and uses its time wisely, moving along at a brisk pace while still giving its characters time to breathe. That said, it offers few surprises and needs little rehearsal. If you have ever seen a film where an alien crash lands on Earth, promptly befriends a young person, and hides from the government, you already have a decent sense of what happens in Bumblebee. In essence, it transplants The Iron Giant a few decades into the future, from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, which is to say it gets to keep the Cold War in the background, and its American G-men are still paranoid about “The Russians.”
This material is elevated by the direction of Knight, a smart visual storyteller who favors clarity in his action sequences. Knight’s background in animation serves him well, and his robot brawls feel as if they have been storyboarded and composed with care, not assembled in post-production by visual effects teams. He is also attuned to the internal lives of his characters and their relationships with each other, and finds clever ways to visualize these emotional contours by paying attention to the placement of photographs and other meaningful objects in his frames. (He also trots out the cleverest “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” shot I can remember since Jurassic Park.) Bumblebee doesn’t take itself too seriously, which would suffocate a movie about Hasbro cars that trick your eyes, but it’s dexterous enough to make light of some of its subject matter while treating emotional undercurrents with sincerity. Knight has a good sense of how to balance more than one tone, which means that unlike the atonal blurs Marvel churns out thrice a year, this is a movie that can actually make distinct transitions from sad scenes to scary scenes to quiet scenes to broadly cartoonish scenes. The latter approach works well enough for the subplots involving the government, which is usually depicted as a somewhat buffoonish entity in films of this kind, and Bumblebee shrewdly deploys John Cena’s persona to comedic effect as a beefy all-American special agent who got a lot of laughs from the audience in my screening, and even a few, begrudgingly, from me.
It also helps, undoubtedly, that the script is credited to one Christina Hodson (whereas most screenplays for movies of this scale are passed between four or five writers). The result is something that’s simple, but sadly rarer than it should be: an accessible big-budget movie, appealing to a wide audience, that is clear about its emotional and thematic intentions without beating its audience over the head with them. That Bumblebee is an emotional stand-in for Charlie’s deceased father becomes clear enough by the time she is tearfully pleading, “I need you to come back,” but unlike so many films of its kind, Bumblebee resists the temptation to underline this central idea in dialogue, instead highlighting it with various visual cues and associations.
Charlie meets Bumblebee on her 18th birthday, which quite clearly marks this as a movie about the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Hollywood seems to have decided that the home is not fertile ground for drama, so most young heroes and heroines in films are orphans these days. I appreciate the way Bumblebee grounds all its alien antics in the context of Charlie’s relations with her mother, stepfather, and little brother, which are strained enough to evoke some dramatic tension, but not enough to disrupt the movie’s affable tone. To say these are three-dimensional characters who feel like real human beings would, perhaps, be giving the film too much credit; still, they work as a Movie Family in broad strokes, each having clearly defined personalities and weird little quirks and idiosyncrasies that feel like they were lifted from a screenwriting textbook (but, like, a decent one). Among other things, Bumblebee is astute about the way that discussion of death is anathema in the American suburbs, which are sectioned off from the deep difficulties of life. Charlie’s grief isolates her from the family members who would rather ignore the reality of her pain, and from a society that has not given her the emotional machinery to authentically respond to mortality. (I thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future or The Modern Mind Outrun, but that’s probably just me.)
Nevertheless, Bumblebee is not ultimately a film that lionizes its young heroine for being misunderstood. As it begins, Charlie wants the independence personified by a car – a classic rite of passage for the suburb-dwelling teenager – but Bumblebee understands that true maturity is to be enmeshed in an often-difficult web of relationships and responsibilities. As Freud put it, the death of the father is a defining event in the life of any young person; the father must die so that the child may take his place (though Jung noted that this death could be metaphorical in nature), and Charlie’s need to let go of her father in order to become an adult is the core of Bumblebee. I am a sentimental moviegoer by nature, and easy appeals to emotion tend to work on me; that I got a little misty-eyed near the end of Bumblebee is no great testament to its merits, but it is something. I don’t want to oversell this movie, but the bar for big-budget family films is low this year, and while Bumblebee doesn’t excel in any area, it is competent in almost all of them. It’s also almost a full hour shorter than Avengers: Infinity War, tells a complete and (mostly) self-contained story with a clear emotional arc, and actually spends time investing in the humanity of its characters. It won’t win any awards, but I’ll wager that ten years from now, young people will have fond memories of it, and they won’t need to be embarrassed about them, as I am when I think of how many times I watched Michael Bay’s Transformers as a youngster.