Believe the Hype: 'Bumblebee' Is the Breath of Fresh Air the 'Transformers' Franchise Needed

Remember the days of Michael Bay’s Transformers? Of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox playing out their awkward romance amid strangely militaristic music and a pack of CGI-rendered alien robots? The days when you weren’t entirely sure what was going on, but sometimes it was funny and the fate of the planet was seemingly always at stake? Now, for just a moment, try and forget all that. Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

In Paramount Pictures’ newest installment to the franchise, Bumblebee, Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who’s battling some profound grief. As her 18th birthday arrives, she is mourning the loss of her father and attempting to move on. Part of that process involves rebuilding an old convertible in her garage — it was their father-daughter pet project — except it only now plagues her, as does her dead-end food service job. She’s feeling lower than low. That’s when she comes into ownership of a beat-up old yellow VW Beetle, never mind how.

She soon discovers that (surprise, surprise) this is not your average vehicle. In fact, this old bug is a beleaguered Autobot from the planet Cybertron, enlisted in the valiant fight against a tyrannical squad of deadly villains, the Decepticons. But to Charlie, Bumblebee is simply somebody in need; someone just as lost as she is.

What transpires is that rare breed of movie-magic chemistry that succeeds at blindsiding you. It disarms and beguiles because it makes showcasing this relationship, an elaborate and complicated and involved undertaking, flow effortlessly. Long story short, Steinfeld does what has long eluded this franchise and delivers the touching authenticity audiences have longed for — even when she’s acting opposite a bunch of towering CGI creatures.

And there’s no arguing that Bumblebee’s mute state — he’s briefly voiced by Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf) before losing his ability to speak — makes every conversation an intricate game. Every gesture or facial tic is a statement. Every song playing on his car-radio an obvious declaration. We’ve seen this parlor trick before, but never with such grace or emotional heft. (Charlie’s crusade to make Bumblebee like Morrissey and The Smiths is perfectly charming.)

Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), working from a script by Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson, reimagines what this world can be by opting for a story with a beating heart instead of the go-for-broke action spectacle audiences have seen time after time. All the explosions in the world can’t ensure a film’s success if viewers don’t actually care about who’s in danger, to begin with. That’s not to say that there aren’t gobs of money being spent on the effects as they present themselves on the big screen. Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and the villainous Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) dazzle, as usual, highlighting and elevating this already-solid good vs. evil tale of friendship.

Like Stranger Things before it, Bumblebee luxuriates in its ’80s setting and reaps all the rewards. Every song is infectious and cheesy, families still gather around the tube with their TV dinners and citizens still trust their government. (Including Agent Burns, played by an increasingly versatile John Cena.) Often, the film conjures Spielberg’s E.T., and not for the obvious similarities. In E.T., viewers grew to empathize with the visiting alien, although young Elliott’s (Henry Thomas) new friend couldn’t have been more different. The same is just as true here. Knight and his team manage to make caring for Bumblebee as effortless as his whirring transition from towering alien to rusted-out Beetle.

Newcomers couldn’t ask for a better introduction to a franchise that, beforehand, was clunky and heavy-handed at best. For fans who’ve struggled through the previous five films, but know and love the cartoon, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.

Bumblebee arrives in theaters on Friday.

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