Reviewing the standalone prequel Bumblebee, which takes place in 1987 and exists as both part of Michael Bay’s loud, noisy Transformers universe and yet someone cozily outside of it, is the equivalent of the misogynistic 1980s teen-movie trope of taking overalls and glasses off a teen girl and finding she’s a beauty the whole time. Here, all this time, this long-beloved universe of toys had inside it a fantastic film potential; it simply needed to be spotlit and given some attention — and a dreamy 1980s soundtrack doesn’t hurt.
The fact that Bumblebee’s 1980s kindhearted-alien-who-befriends-a-young-earthling conceit works so well has to, I would imagine, be attributed to executive producer Steven Spielberg, himself the master of that very convention in the actual 1980s. But the real reason Bumblebee seems so breezy and digestible is that whereas Bay filled his five films with ear-splitting explosions, breakdancing robots and overstuffed storylines (They’re on the moon! There’s a robot dinosaur! There’s…King Arthur?), Travis Knight’s prequel is content to drill down and focus essentially the titular robot and the two bounty hunter-type robots who’ve come to track him down. Meanwhile, a government team led by John Cena is similarly trying to find the yellow Autobot. Oh, and there’s a young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who’s just turned eighteen and coming of age.
Those three simple, familiar storylines stay pretty rote, and that’s not a terrible thing for Bumblebee — in fact it’s refreshing — as it gives the title character room to breathe, charm and show off a personality often lost in Bay’s special effects showcases. It’s all very Spielbergian, and for light, family-friendly holiday fare it pretty much works. Sure, there are still big, dumb, robots-punching-robots scenes; the difference is that we care a little bit more because there feels like an investment is involved.
It’s not perfect, and it certainly doesn’t reinvent the Transformers wheel. It does, after all, still exist in the same universe as Bay’s films, so hands are tied a bit there — but there’s a heart here which didn’t previously exist, along with some effective humor (a quick moment where Cena actively questions whether the US military should be working with beings who actively introduced themselves as “Decepticons” is particularly wry), and a bit of emotional heft.
Thought at the end of the day Bumblebee may eventually be lost to the Transformers canon along with all the other boisterousness and bluster, there’s hope that it can live on its own as an oft-visited family film that finds some legs long after its season is over. I hope it will and think it will, if nothing else than because it’s the both type of film you can casually drift in and out of and one the family can enjoy together. That remains to be seen but certainly, this Christmas, Bumblebee doesn’t deserved to be seated at the same table as it’s loud, goofy cousins.