Let me be completely upfront about this: I genuinely enjoy the first couple of Michael Bay Transformers films. The first three are my go-to guilty pleasure movies. As much as I love and respect actual, competent cinema, there’s just something about the giddy, care-free explosion-insanity of the early movies that just speak to me on a primal, childlike level. What can I say? I like watching robots punch other robots. I’m a man of simple pleasures. And, honestly, despite becoming a laughingstock later in the franchise, the first film is actually pretty solid. It’s got some definite cringe-worthy humor and dialogue, and Megan Fox has the acting range of a cabbage, but the story is at least coherent, and there’s some charm in Shia LaBouf’s bumbling teenage protagonist. Not to mention the visual effects, which have aged in the past ten years or so beautifully. So yeah, at least as far as Transformers 1-3 go, I consider myself a fan.
However, as entertaining as they are, the franchise has always been plagued with one glaring issue, which grew exponentially with each subsequent film until it inevitably collapsed upon itself: The tone. Despite having their share of levity and (hit-or-miss) humor, the Michael Bay Transformers series is crippled by the fact that they take themselves far too seriously. And as the series progressed, they got more and more gritty and bleak, until there just wasn’t any fun in watching them anymore. Sure, there absolutely were other issues, chief of which being the incomprehensible, constantly-contradictory plots. But people will still see and enjoy a movie with a messy plot if it’s at least fun. And the final two Transformers films, Age of Extinction and The Last Knight, were anything but. They were dull, overly-long affairs that made me check my phone constantly just to see how much longer I had to endure whatever nonsense was currently onscreen. While the Transformers movies were never “good” by any means, these last two swiftly killed off any goodwill the franchise still had with audiences.
It’s always baffled me as to why Bay chose to make these films so deathly serious, given their source material. For those of you who don’t know, the Transformers, as a concept, started out as a toy by Hasbro (which essentially just cannibalized several Japanese toylines). They were then rocketed to fame by children everywhere by their monumentally popular Saturday-morning cartoon, which, like many others of the time, was essentially just an extended commercial for the toys. And as a cartoon based on toys tends to be, the show was campy, super 80s, and a lot of silly, lighthearted fun. Certainly a far cry from the brutal robot-on-robot violence Bay would eventually unleash on audiences. Tonally, the film versions couldn’t be any different from the original if they tried.
And this is ultimately because Michael Bay chose to focus on, rather than story, what he knows best: Spectacle. Sure, the cartoon had its fair share of action, but it basically just amounted to poorly-animated laser blasts and a punch here and there. But Bay makes the action front and center. Everything else is just supplementary. The best evidence for this is in the designs for the titular characters. In the original toyline and cartoon, each Transformer had unique designs and personalities. They were interesting, surprisingly deeply-written, and stood out from one another, with simple, iconic physical appearances. For example, here’s Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as they were designed for the 1980s:
Clean, geometric shapes, bright colors, and easily-recognizable silhouettes make these designs fun, intelligent, and most importantly, iconic. They clearly show both characters’ personalities, as well as their robot-to-vehicle gimmick. And they’re non-threatening, obviously good guys, which is important for characters in a children’s show. These designs tell a story. They fit a narrative role. Now, take a look at the Michael Bay designs for the same two characters:
Sharp, aggressive shapes. Intimidating bodies. Incredibly complex and detailed, to the point where it’s hard to even comprehend. And, quite frankly, tonally blank. You get absolutely no sense of who these are, personality-wise, because they’re designed for the sole purpose of punching each other in the face for two-hour intervals. Don’t get me wrong, I love these designs. It’s just that they have absolutely no character to them whatsoever, and have almost no real relation to the originals. Which is fitting, because that’s a pretty accurate description of the Bay Transformers as well. All spectacle, no soul.
Luckily, in Michael Bay’s absence, director Travis Knight seems to have realized this as well, because Bumblebee could not be more different in tone and approach to its predecessors. I had extremely high hopes when Knight was announced at the helm for this movie, given his incredible work with Laika Studios and films like Kubo and the Two Strings, and they’ve paid off beautifully. Knight understands perfectly well what makes the Transformers franchise so enduring and popular, importantly recognizing when the need for story and character development outweighs the need for spectacle.
Bumbleebee is part prequel, part reboot to the Transformers series, taking place in the late 1980s, and follows the titular Autobot as he makes his arrival to Earth for the first time. The story follows relatively closely to the formula of the first film, with a teenager being gifted a car, only for it to reveal itself as an alien robot. Shia LaBouf, in this instance, is replaced by an exceedingly charming Hailee Steinfeld, who, true to the 80s, John Hughes-esque feel of the movie, is a social outcast and a bit of a tomgirl. She finds Bumblebee in a junkyard, and the film kicks off with a plot in the vein of E.T. or The Iron Giant, which is a perfect choice of inspiration given the subject matter. While the plots may be similar, at least at a cursory glance, the 2007 Transformers is much larger in scale. There’s more action scenes then character moments, and it eventually devolves into a cliché “protect the city, fate of the world” affair. Bumblebee takes a much more nuanced approach, with a small-scale, intimate story more focused on character interaction than action.
There’s a lot of genuine heart in this film, which makes even the robotic characters seem sympathetic and endearing. Steinfeld’s protagonist, Charlie, is a classic Spielberg kid, in that she comes from a somewhat broken home, with her father having passed away recently. Her mother has already moved on and remarried, leaving her feeling alienated in her own home. She has no friends, and feels isolated from the world. The film really takes its time with this, showing her emotional state and making sure that it takes center stage. Likewise, Bumblebee is treated the same way. There’s an emphasis on facial expressions and body language with the robots here that makes them seem much more identifiable and human than in the Bay films, allowing them to convey complex emotions with as little as an eye movement. This is particularly important for the title character, who loses the ability to speak early in the film, and must then communicate through both facial tics and the music in a car stereo. Neither feel they have a voice, and bond through that shared pain. But Bumblebee is never a downer, and is always optimistic with its portrayal of loss and grief. It’s a film about moving past those emotions, rather than dwelling on them, making it an incredible feel-good type of movie.
The music itself plays a role in the lighter atmosphere as well. While the earlier films had heavy, intentionally-edgy soundtracks that pretty much only appealed to middle schoolers going through their emo phases or grown men who still pound Monster Energy like it was water, Bumblebee has a fun, energetic mix of classic 80s music. A lot of it is played for laughs (there’s even a RickRoll in there at one point), and some of it is an intentional callback to the original 80s cartoon series (Stan Bush!), but the rest often plays a perfect thematic companion to what’s happening onscreen. If the music doesn’t make you smile at some point in this movie, you have no soul. And frankly, any soundtrack that features Tears for Fears gets a plus in my book.
Aesthetically, the film greatly improves upon the designs elements of the previous films. Remember the jumbled mess of shapes and parts I showed you earlier? Here’s those same two characters in Bumblebee:
Complex, yes, as well as realistic. But much more coherent, with more recognizable geometric shapes, brighter colors, and a much closer similarity to their original cartoon counterparts. They’re much less intense, softer, and much less threatening, helping the tone to seem much less bleak and dire. The simpler silhouettes not only give them more personality, which greatly helps with characterization and sympathy, but also makes them much easier to follow onscreen. A common, valid complaint from earlier films was that fights between the robot characters were way too frenetic and shaky, making it impossible sometimes to tell who was who. But with new, more faithful designs, as well as Knight’s skillful camerawork and framing, battles are now much clearer and much better choreographed, which in turn makes them much more suspenseful and impactful.
The characters, the music, the design, and the story all together make Bumblebee hands-down the best Transformers movie to date. If I had to complain about anything, it’s that the movie seemed unsure what it was in terms of continuity. At times, it seemed to be a prequel to the Bay films, with Bumblebee taking on the appearance of the 1977 Camaro he has at the beginning of the first film, as well as the presence of a character who is meant to be a younger version of John Turturro’s character from the Bay films. However, Bumblebee also contradicts the plot of nearly all of Bay’s installments, with the title character arriving in the 1980s as opposed to 2007 when the first film takes place. However, this is a relatively minor problem, considering every subsequent Bay film explicitly contradicts the plot of the previous installment. In my opinion, the franchise should take this opportunity to use Bumblebee as a jumping-off point for a rebooted franchise, utilizing the design and character elements of this film rather than it’s predecessors, which have left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Bumblebee is great, and is exactly the Transformers film that we should’ve gotten years ago. It’d be a shame to let all that potential go to waste.