It’s difficult to think of a franchise with a more wretched legacy than Transformers. Despite five films filled with puerile humour, sexism and disinterested performances, the robots in disguise have been a hit with audiences, grossing over $4bn in box office, providing all the motivation needed for continuation.
So, we come to Bumblebee, a prequel/soft reboot set in the 80s, and the first without explosion king Michael Bay behind the camera. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Pitch Perfect 2) stars as a teenager who discovers Bumblebee wrecked in a junkyard. Reviving the Autobot and helping him adjust to life on Earth, their friendship is threatened by the arrival of the evil Decepticons and a government agent (John Cena).
With director Travis Knight (Kubo and The Two Strings) taking the reins, what could have been a soulless spin-off becomes the Transformers movie purists were hoping for 10 years ago. Instead of each scene and line of dialogue merely setting up the next action sequence, the focus is firmly on the heart-warming friendship between Steinfeld and her CGI co-star.
Just as Spider-man: Homecoming won over audiences by becoming a John Hughes-style coming of age film, Bumblebee feels like an 80s movie, and not just because of the relentless references. Action is used sparingly, making the whole experience far less relentless than Bay’s films. And once the explosions do arrive, the emotional investment means there’s something worth fighting for.
Fans will be pleased that the Autobots and Decepticons are more faithful to the source material, with voice actors such as Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux (as the main Decepticon villain) given more room to express themselves. As impressive as the animation is, it’s the humans that make Bumblebee a success, particularly Oscar nominee Steinfeld. On the opposite end of the spectrum, wrestler-turned-actor Cena is tailor made for this sort of role, fulfilling the machismo of his ruthless military role without jettisoning his ample personality.
After a decade of reshaping Transformers to fit the times, Bumblebee takes the audience back to the brand’s origins, reminding us why their legacy is so enduring. It’s still a big studio action film, but thanks to a creative reshuffle, it’s an enjoyably nostalgic adventure too.