Travis Knight’s ‘Bumblebee’ erases all the bad ‘Transformers’ movies

Let the record state that after five movies, 12 hours, and 47 minutes of movies, we have finally received the first great Transformers films: Bumblebee. Welcome to a world where sophisticated and “transformers movie” can co-exist.

It sure wasn’t easy. For the past 11 years, Michael Bay has ravaged moviegoers with relentless action and overlong running times, saturating this film addict’s desire to see their childhood put up on the big screen. When in doubt, Bay blows something up and doesn’t have time for character development, which has tarnished every single one of his attempts at putting the famed Hasbro action figures into a cohesive and coherent movie.

What’s it about? The year is 1987. Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, confidently anchoring the action) is stuck in her self-constructed teenage wasteland. A car junkie and former swimmer who lost her dad and prefers The Smiths to the Stones, Charlie is in a funk without her doting father. While Charlie’s mom (Pamela Aldon) has moved on with a new husband and son, Charlie is stuck. She can’t even get the Corvette that she was working on with her father to start. She does manage to get a mysterious old, dusty Beetle to start, and instead of a ride to school, Charlie finds a true friend.

There’s more to it. John Cena’s soldier shows up and doesn’t trust the robot that has fallen from Earth, and a pair of Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) show up looking for Bumblebee after Cybertron falls. A certain red semi-truck shows up. Glorious, well-crafted action occurs. It’s all good, but guess what’s better? What happens in-between the action: heartfelt storytelling. What?! I’m serious.

Instead of wooden characters, you get depth and personality. Instead of constant, brain-numbing explosions, you get story and dialogue that doesn’t include all the bland pantry elements that a dozen screenwriters used in the last five movies. How did this happen?

Enter Travis Knight, director of the acclaimed Kubo and The Two Strings. Here’s someone who wants to build a story before he blows up Chicago. Knight’s resume is bolstered by 18 years of work in animated films, which basically gives him a PHD in cartoons and Transformer tales. Instead of just saddling a beloved product with any director, Paramount finally recruited the ideal candidate to bring us a true well-rounded movie.

Enter Christina Hodson, who developed the story and wrote the screenplay, prefers a sublime writing touch over overzealous action sequences. The last Transformers movie, The Last Knight, had four different writers to treat your brain like a conflicted cannonball. Hodson is in love with the 80’s and wants to harken back to a time where morning cartoons, possibilities of adventure, and an earnest yearning filled our hearts.

It’s the little things here that resonate. Instead of being a flat hero, Bumblebee doesn’t like the Smiths, can’t stop watching The Breakfast Club, and is a shy and reluctant hero. The substance that Hodson adds allows Knight to make a better movie, one that is soulful and entertaining.

Steinfeld has impressed me since she struck upon the movie scene in The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and has solidified herself as a multi-faceted artist in the entertainment industry ever since. She’s a pop star and sharing the screen in the Pitch Perfect film franchise as well as holding it on her own in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. She imbues Charlie with something more than the standard “oh my, there’s a Transformer in my garage” reaction.

Steinfeld’s scenes with Bumblebee make for the film’s best moments. A pair of outsiders trying to find their place in a world that is foreign to one and brutally harsh to the other, Charlie and her friend have a patient and steady friendship that never feels forced so the next action scene can arrive. Instead of staring down my watch like a restless viewer of lethargic world-building, I left the film wanting more adventures from Charlie and “Bee.”

When the action does happen, it’s sly and inventive. The initial battle scenes on Cybertron reminded of the original Transformers cartoon. Knight constructs the action as a homage to the classic animation that we grew up on while tossing a new coat of CGI paint on top of it.

The soundtrack will successfully renew a love affair between you and the 80’s, with many classic tunes making the hit list. I’ll leave the setlist up to your imagination, because like the majority of this film, the musical experience is best if you come into it without expectation.

Did I mention the film is less than two hours? Paul Rubell, who edited three of Bay’s films, gets a pardon for his work here in keeping the film tight and moving on a dime. There isn’t a single minute wasted here in rebooting a story that most wanted left for dead in the land of Last Knight Extinction.

Knight, Hodson, and Steinfeld make it all seem fresh again, as if Bay’s films never existed. Like Charlie attempts with the old sports car in her garage, the cast and crew here take a car that was overstuffed with useless parts and speed-crippling story tropes, and restore it. More than anything, a newfound energy is brought to the franchise that leaves you wanting more in the end. If you would have told me that would be my reaction after the 2016 film

Bumblebee isn’t just a good Transformers film; it’s just a very good movie, period. Let’s put it this way: If John Hughes directed a Transformers film, this would be the result.

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