There is a scene in this movie where Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie pulls a dusty tarp off a rusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle, who we know as Bumblebee. After a bit of TLC, she gets the old clunker up and running again. The entire scene I could not shake the not-so-subtle allegory for the current state of the Transformers franchise and indeed it is an apt one.
With his own finessing, Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) has reignited my optimism regarding robots in disguise and that is his greatest achievement here.
For the first time since Michael Bay’s 2007 original, bombastic digital explosions are not the emphasis of a Transformers film (though there are still plenty to be had). Rather, Bumblebee rips straight from the more family-friendly E.T. (Steven Spielberg returns as executive producer): an alien comes to Earth, meets a kind-hearted kid and the two strike up an unlikely friendship by way of innocent hijinks.
Of course the stakes are a little higher here. No sooner than Bumblebee crash lands on Earth is he on the run from an inept U.S. military, in this case led by John Cena’s cartoonishly macho Agent Burns. In order to tag and bag the Autobot runaway, the military joins forces with two Decepticon scouts who manage to convince the powers on Earth that they are the good guys (which leads to a fun meta-joke about the nature of the name “Decepticon”).
Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays Memo, the obligatory nerd next door who accidentally gets caught up in all the intergalactic intrigue. He and Steinfeld share a couple of sweet moments, but his presence is pretty inconsequential on the whole.
On the other hand, Steinfeld is an Oscar-nominated talent and only getting better. The 21-year old actor gives arguably her best performance to date playing mostly against a computer-generated war machine from space and whether they’re teepeeing some jerk’s house, leading the local cops on a high-speed pursuit or simply listening to any number of songs off the film’s “Isn’t 80s Music Great!” soundtrack, their scenes together are charmingly whimsical and go a long ways to get you invested in their relationship.
Transformers is first and foremost for children and Bumblebee knows it. There are still plenty of explosions and silly humor, but way more heart and emotion than those other films.