Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

The live-action Transformers franchise had pretty much run its course after five movies (many would say sooner than that), but the box-office receipts proved that there is still an audience for these movies.  Therefore, instead of rebooting the entire franchise, producers Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg opted instead to go the spin-off route with Bumblebee, a prequel taking place about thirty years earlier than the first film.  Setting the new movie in 1987 also represented a perfect opportunity for the filmmakers to introduce the Generation One models of some of the franchise’s most iconic characters.  This will be a thrill for fans of the original animated series.  As will the fact that Bumblebee has something the rest of the movies in the franchise were sorely lacking: a character-driven story.

The movie opens on Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are making their last stand against the evil Decepticons in defense of their home planet.  The battle has been lost, however, forcing the Autobots to abandon the planet and go into hiding.  The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, sends one of his top soldiers, whom we will come to know as Bumblebee, to planet Earth, where he is tasked with setting up a base where the Autobots could eventually regroup.  Upon landing on Earth, however, Bumblebee is attacked by a Decepticon named Blitzwing.  He manages to escape with his life, but not before his voice and memory circuits are destroyed.  His confrontation with Blitzwing is also witnessed by the American military, which sees him as a threat to national security.

Bumblebee assumes the form of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and goes into hiding in a scrap yard.  It is there that he is discovered by Charlie Watson, an 18-year-old former championship-caliber high diver who is still struggling following the death of her father.  Charlie brings the Beetle home to the garage where she used to work on cars with her Dad and she accidentally discovers that her new car is actually a robot in disguise.  From there the movie proceeds very much like one of its producer’s most beloved films, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, as the young woman and the marooned alien being develop a friendship and help each other overcome their personal challenges.

Not only is Bumblebee the first spin-off in the franchise, it is also the first not to be directed by producer Michael Bay.  Taking the reins is Travis Knight, the director of the incredibly charming animated film Kubo and the Two Strings.  It is Knight’s first live-action movie and he proves to be a talent and blending the live-action with special effects.  This movie’s version of Bumblebee is the first robot character in the franchise to genuinely feel like he was occupying the same space as the human characters.  I can only assume that Knight must have taken advantage of practical effects in the more personal scenes between Charlie and Bumblebee, because we generally feel as if they are in direct contact with each other, rather than it being Hailee Steinfeld acting to a tennis ball on a stick.

Speaking of Steinfeld, her Charlie is the first lead human character in the franchise that we genuinely care about.  A lot of this has to do with her performance, but it is also because Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson actually gives her some emotional beats to play, rather than having her just be, say, a horny teenager whose sole motivation is to get a car so he can impress the hot girl.  The rest of the human characters may be mostly annoying, cartoon caricatures, but her arc keeps the story as grounded as it could possibly be.

Bumblebee still has its fair share of action scenes and robot battles, but it is on a less grand scale than the previous films.  That may sound like a criticism, but I actually mean it as a positive.  Instead of tornadoes of special effects that overwhelm the senses, Bumblebee’s action scenes are more one-on-one and it is a little easier to discern how the robots are fighting each other than in previous films.  The color schemes certainly help, as the main combatants are mostly a single color: yellow, red, and blue.  This makes it easier to tell them apart when the screen is filled from wall to wall with robotics.

The highlight of the movie, at least for fans of a certain age (my age: 40ish), is the opening action sequence on Cybertron.  Although it may look more like a video game cut-scene than a big budget blockbuster, it is a thrill to see classic characters like Optimus Prime, Arcee, Wheeljack, Cliffjumper, Brawn, Shockwave, and others in their original forms.  The question it begs, though, is why aren’t any of these classic Decepticon villains the ones sent to Earth to hunt down Bumblebee?  Instead, we are given Shatter and Dropkick, two original characters whose names I only know because I looked them up on IMDb.  Even the red and white jet seen in the trailer turns out not to be Starscream as everyone assumed it would be.  It seems like this prequel, set in the 1980s, would have been the perfect opportunity to have Bumblebee face off against one of his age-old rivals.  We get a slightly extended look at Soundwave in the Cybertron scenes and it seems like an Earth in which walkman and tape decks are still all the rage would have been the perfect opportunity to give the iconic character his chance to shine.

It is unfair to focus on what a movie could have been rather than what it is, however, and Bumblebee is definitely the most charming, emotionally relevant Transformers movie released in years.  It is still a loud and campy action comedy, but at least it has got a heart.

Bumblebee opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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