Michael Bay's "Transformers" movies are a lot of things: loud, incoherently plotted, ridiculous, vaguely racist. But one thing they've never been is sweet. Now along comes the comparatively small-scale prequel "Bumblebee," with its pleasant nostalgia and actual characters we care about. The new film is a major departure, stripping away the previous films' impenetrable mythology and Bay-tastic excess while adding some genuine emotion and family-friendly fun. It's a welcome course correction for a franchise that until now has been kind of a mess.
The story is set in 1987, and follows Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a The Smiths-loving tomboy with a knack for mechanics. Living with her well-meaning mother (Pamela Adlon), stepdad (Stephen Schneider), and younger brother, she's still mourning the death of her father, even as rest of her family have taken the first steps toward moving on. She's also desperate for a car for her 18th birthday, and checking out the prospects in the local junkyard, she sets her sights on a beat up, bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle.
We already know, however, that Beetle is really Bumblebee, a transforming alien robot in disguise. We've already seen him flee a massive battle raging between the Autobots and evil Decepticons on the distant planet of Cybertron, homeworld of the Transformers. But after crash landing on our planet and fighting off some Decepticons who've followed him, the robot has suffered serious injury, losing his voice and memory in the process. Taking her new car home to her garage, it's not long before Charlie discovers the vehicle's secret, and some robot alien/human bonding ensues.
Hoping to prevent Bumblebee from falling into the wrong hands, namely a pair of evil Decepticons hot on his tail and a Special Forces soldier (John Cena) who believes the massive robot to be a threat to national security, Charlie has her work cut out for her. Luckily she gets some assistance from her geeky next door neighbor, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who eagerly joins her cause.
Picking up the directing reigns this time around is filmmaker Travis Knight, the CEO and lead animator for stop-motion animation studio Laika, and director of the studio's "Kubo and the Two Strings." Knight is a child of the 80's, and it shows. The narrative is based in a sweet 80's nostalgia, keeping with the era of the original toy line these films are based on. But thankfully, he keeps the winking 80's references to a minimum. And to his credit, there are several moments where the film truly feels like something that might have been released during the era it's set in.
Knight and writer Christina Hodson aim for a Spielbergian, "kids on bikes" adventure story. As more directors who grew up on Spielberg's films are given the keys to their own big-budget franchise flicks, we've gotten a lot of directors turning in their own version of the Amblin-style family action-adventure picture, and it's bordering on old hat at this point. But Knight does a remarkably good job as recreating the feel of films he's paying homage to.
Knight's background in animation lends the film a strong visual sense and attention to character that helps make "Bumblebee" the best Transformers movie by a mile, though it's admittedly not a high bar to clear. Steinfeld makes a likeable lead, and the decision to center the story around a broken family unit (another Spielbergian touch) yields some genuinely touching moments.
Knight and Hodson bring an agreeable sincerity that's been missing from Bay's films in the series and thanks to their earnest approach, against all odds "Bumblebee" ultimately succeeds by finding the beating heart beneath the machinery.