Popcorn flicks have their place, and Bumblebee knows precisely what it needs to do to become one. It is not a smart film, but nor were the Transformers films that came before it. At least they knew what they were. Michael Bay had no trouble pigeonholing himself, his cast, and his vision there. Travis Knight, a once promising name behind Kubo and the Two Strings, has no trouble reigning in his creative wisdom, replacing it with amicable action fodder in Bumblebee. There is not more than meets the eye here, although there does not need to be. We can find comfort in the cluster of car combat clashes and energetic robot wars.
There is a feeling here, and it is probably because of Knight, that Bumblebee is at least trying to refrain from demolishing the source material. It features designs similar to that of the animated television show. Its colours pop out quite nicely, particularly in the early moments on Cybertron, with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee looking sleek, bright and interesting. There is no escaping the video game style, but even that is part of the charm. There is an effectiveness in the bombastic explosions of the early films of the series, coupled with the engaging characters generations upon generations can feel nostalgic for. That is the impenetrable charm of the Transformers franchise. Even when Orson Welles and Eric Idle are present, there is an awkward timelessness that audiences can continually return to. It is the perfect blend of violent action and child-friendly antics. Nobody cares if the robot car loses an arm, for they are not people.
A transplant like that, so simple yet so effective, is the core of Bumblebee. It is a film that can muster up the courage to face its new audience with old characters, changing enough about them to keep them fresh. Even the issues of Transformers and its many, many sequels, appear to be solved. John Cena as the goofball-turned good-for-nothing is remarkable. He is reaping the rewards of being a hero for decades in the wrestling ring and is now finding a new spark of energy in throwing everything he can into menacing, larger-than-life personas. He has the chops for it, and displays such here. Agent Jack Burns does not feel like the usual empty face these features throw at us, primarily because his personality is more thought-out than “John Leguizamo may be menacing or slimy.”
Thinking bigger than that serves Knight, Cena, and leading star Hailee Steinfeld rather well. Prequels are a time for creatives to knock their heads together and come up with a convincing origin for why characters are where they are when we get round to meeting them. Bumblebee is a persuasive and fun blockbuster, one that relies on the notable robot from beyond the stars that would soon find itself chauffeuring Shia LaBeouf around the world. No man, beast or artificial intelligence deserves such a fate, but someone had to draw the short straw. We see why Bumblebee uses the radio to talk, we see all the little notes that Bay probably wasn’t concerned with coming to life. That is the aim of any successful feature looking to cash in on the Bay brigade, and Knight pushes all the right buttons.