It’s kind of hard to imagine that the multi-billion-dollar Transformers franchise has never previously leaned hard on nostalgia for the beloved ’80s toys and cartoon series that inspired it. Michael Bay’s films — all five of them — are anxious corporate cacophony; expensive commercials for themselves, sure, but they’re more about maximalist image-making and pop plasticity than any actual affection for the source, which seems strange given the fealty audiences have shown they have for this sort of thing. It’s Bay’s brand, not the Transformers one, and his films never really sincerely line-up with the original material. Enter Bumblebee, the first Bay-less Transformers, a prequel to the Bay films set conveniently in 1987, which essentially gives it license to drown itself in ’80s production design, needle drops, and countless other pop references on its way to restarting the franchise as the family-friendly one everyone sort of always wanted.
Nobody could (nor perhaps should they try to) recreate Bay’s hyperactivity and massive scope, but Knight’s background at Laika Studios (the animation house behind Kubo and the Two Strings and Paranorman) has obviously given him some serious chops.
Bumblebee opens with a big CGI battle on the alien robot planet of Cybertron before sending its eponymous hero to Earth where he hooks up with angsty tomboy teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). She helps him fight the mean Decepticons who’ve chased him to our planet; he becomes a young girl’s first car and helps her self-actualize and get over the premature death of her dad. Oh, and he learns to like the Smiths. Meanwhile, John Cena shows up as a soldier who has a scary encounter with some Transformers and carries a healthy grudge. You’ve seen this movie before, but director Travis Knight’s combination of practical and CG effects is impressive, as is the compositional clarity and command of geography in his action sequences. Of course nobody could (nor perhaps should they try to) recreate Bay’s hyperactivity and massive scope, but Knight’s background at Laika Studios (the animation house behind Kubo and the Two Strings and Paranorman) has obviously given him some serious chops. He pulls way back to diminish his giant robots in big wide frames, both to orient us and for scale, and moves his camera around the battles rather than cutting between multiple CG shots. It also helps tremendously that the robot design has been revamped, resembling much more closely the characters as they appeared in the old cartoon, a simple decision that makes it a lot easier to see what’s happening, which more than makes up for the recycled tone and narrative. It’s not the most memorable stuff, but it’s sincerely delivered.