The beginning of Travis Knight's Bumblebee is enough to make any Transformers fan's jaw drop. Planet Cybertron! Optimus Prime! Arcee! Starscream! All looking like their classic toys, no less. It can't last. This is, after all, the filmed equivalent ofÂ solo album rather than an all-star band effort, and like in the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe movie of 1987 (the year in which Bumblebee is set), a battle fought in the stars now comes to earth. Small-town California, specifically; warring cosmic aliens based on toys are nothing if not location budget-conscious.
Confused by his surroundings and the human military who pursue him on our li'l globe, Bumblebee loses his voice and his memory in an initial battle, regressing him from fierce, weapon-loving warrior to a frightened, childlike state. It's an apt metaphor for the franchise as a whole: Michael Bay's rah-rah militarism is replaced with a sense of wonder and an emphasis on repairing familial wounds.Steven Spielberg, in originally deciding to produce the Transformers movies, saw the fundamental appeal as being the story of a boy and his first car. Knight goes back to that well, and keeps his focus on this girl and her sapient vehicle, but by making both semi-parentless (she has a clueless remarried mother, he has no idea where he's from), he deepens the relationship. This brings the just-turned-18 Charlie into adulthood emotionally, by having her experience what it means to take care of somebody who really needs it. It's a movie more Iron Giant than Armageddon, though unlike the Vin Diesel-voiced Brad Bird creation, no Autobot will be able to insist they're "not a gun" forever, especially when Decepticons are around. Said bad robots--Justin Theroux's Dropkick and Angela Bassett's Shatter--are, notably, the only onscreen mechanical characters to have "Bayformer" designs, as all the others have mostly reverted to Generation 1 looks.Which brings up the question of continuity: does Bumblebee work as a prequel? Well, first, let's consider existing movie continuity, such as it is. Transforming robots invade the Earth...but one has actually been here for years previously, frozen in ice! No, wait...they've really been here since cavemen times! Or, actually, earlier! Since dinosaur times! No, earlier than that: they're on the moon! Also, the entire planet Earth has been one giant Transformer the whole time. You're asking if the new movie fits in with that?Fair enough. Parts of it do. You might have to forget the entire subplot about Bumblebee fighting in World War II, or Optimus coming to Earth for the first time in 2007. And that whole thing about them learning English from the Internet--the only real justification for so many of the 'bots being broad stereotypes-- no longer works, though Bumblebee's new notion that the modern Internet was basically created by two Decepticons and John Cena makes a lot of sense. But if you're a fan of these movies, and I am, you should have accepted long ago that they utilize the storytelling logic of a five year-old smashing Hot Wheels cars together, and that's a feature rather than a bug. There is some attempt at connective tissue, but this might just as well be a ground-up reboot, and I suspect it will be treated as such if it works for everyone.In going more of a Spielbergian direction, Knight effectively captures the wonder of having a magical friend, though lovers of Bay's epic destruction may feel disappointed at how close-quarters it all feels. Gone are any sweeping vistas or sunset-color filters with slo-mo, and while Knight has at least one clever car chase sequence in which Bee uses his robot parts to maximum advantage, he does tend to rely heavily on additional car chases that aren't, perhaps, as exciting as we're used to. On the plus side, his characters feel a lot more like real people, with the possible exception of Cena; his performance as a military man is about as subtle as a Hulk Hogan leg drop to the face. If you want to know why he's never done a "heel turn" in years for WWE, maybe this is why: he's not convincing as one. He's hilarious for reasons that don't seem completely intentional, but the transforming robots are more believable.The fact that we barely need mention the fact that Bumblebee himself is an utterly convincing effect who looks like he occupies real space and is actually transforming into a car and back, is symptomatic of how far this franchise has come. For arguably the first time in a Transformers film, there are moments when you forget you're looking at a CG model, and see only the character. It's taken a decade's worth of work to get here, and I can't wait to see what they do next.Rating: 4/5