On the run in the year of 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie, on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. (from IMDb)
In 2007, Michael Bay made many children of the 80’s dreams come true by making The Transformers come to life on the big screen. The animated TV series, which was based on (and designed to sell) a popular robot toyline, ran from 1984 to 1987, spawning an infamous 1986 animated feature film, which killed off the entire original cast for the purpose of introducing a new toyline. Bay’s 2007 film inserted the “robots in disguise” into the real world, using photorealistic CGI and real vehicles to ground it in reality. However, he also added lots of profanity, violence and even sexual content, making a film about a toyline more geared towards adults than children (even though he changed what original fans–who were now adults–loved about the series). The 2007 film spawned four sequels (you read that right), for a total of five films, with each subsequent film declining in quality. In fact, the dismal reception and performance of 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight pretty much ended that series of films (well, so it seems, anyway). A prequel spinoff film about the beloved yellow Camaro, Bumblebee, was announced as part of an expanding Transformers universe, but it may be too much too late to save the fanbase from burnout.
Michael Bay did one major thing right for his Transformers films: the action. The animated vehicle transformations are still breathtaking to behold, and I’ll never forget how it felt sitting in the theater 11-and-a-half years ago watching it for the first time. But Bay did oh so much wrong with the series by progressively making them more vulgar, devoid of sense and story, and just so amazingly poor. The series just couldn’t handle his ego on display in full, and I couldn’t wait for him to take his hands off the franchise. Thankfully, five films and over a decade later, someone else has taken the reins for at least one film, and it seems to be the recipient of much rejoicing because of it. (Seriously, Paramount, the evidence is obvious.) Travis Knight, who helmed the animated film Kubo and the Two String, and was part of the Animation Department of movies like ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, brings a reverent homage to the original cartoon series, as well as not entirely throwing out Bay’s character direction. While Bumblebee was originally announced as a spin-off, it feels much more like a course-correction. It cherry-picks things from the Bay films and throws out the rest. It tells of what Bumblebee was doing on Earth before the 2007 film, including how he lost his voice and learned to talk through the car radio (although it seems harder to repair than it was at the end of the 2007 Transformers), but reboots the Cybertron history, character design, and even Earth designs of the Transformers. The Cybertron designs of the characters are even more fantastically inspired by the original cartoon. In fact, Bumblebee opens on Cybertron, showing a quick glimpse of the famed Autobot / Decepticon war, with calls back to most of the fan favorite characters–I felt like a little kid again watching that sequence. It was glorious.
Bumblebee takes place in 1987, which is a fun and interesting way to not only serve as a prequel to Bay’s films, but to honor the original series’ origin. Even Bumblebee gets to be the Volkswagen bug he was originally designed as. Interestingly enough, the cartoon series ended in 1987, so it makes me wonder if this was a conscious effort to kind of nod to following the series with this new take on the characters. It’s so intriguing, though, that Knight has chosen to reimagine the Cybertron world. It does have the look and feel of the War for Cybertron video game cut scenes, but obviously with higher budget special effects, yet it just perfectly recaptures some of the magic of the original series. It’s the Transformers movie we fans have been waiting for… even if it’s only just a couple scenes. Peter Cullen even returns to voice Optimus Prime in a couple moments, and while it feels a hair like a tease, there’s some hope at the end of the film that we could get more Optimus in the future (the true Optimus). I’d kind of love to see an all-animated Optimus origin story or something (from back when he was Orion Pax, to becoming Optimus Prime). The experiment of singling out Bumblebee for a standalone story and making him a car that a girl owns was a risky move, but it proves to work here. However, it’s not a story you can easily make a sequel to, so I’m curious where things could go from here. But I can honestly say I’d be happy to see more movies with this look and feel, even if it means completely ignoring Bay’s films going forward. I think we’re more than ready for a hard reboot. The fact we have 80s Optimus in this film is something I think most fans have been longing for. (We’d love to see more of this!)
I thought Hailee Stanfield was an interesting casting choice for the lead human character in Bumblebee. She’s a great young actress, who hit one out of the park in the True Grit remake several years ago, so I figured she could carry a film like this — and she does. In this movie, the 22-year-old actress plays Charlie, a 17-year-old on the brink of turning 18 who is struggling with the loss of her father to a heart attack, and is having trouble moving on in life. She’s lost her passion for the things she’s loved, and she hates that her mother has moved on with her own life, with her now living with a man named Ron (it’s not specified whether they’re married or not, but I got the impression they’re not). It’s the 80s, so there are no cellphones yet, and the family is making due with humble living. When Charlie discovers and gains possession of Bumblebee, the Autobot had been previously damaged and lost his memory, frozen in Volkswagen Beetle disguise form until Charlie fixes him up a bit and accidentally reactivates him. The relationship the two share is so endearing; they both are exactly what the other needs, and it’s amazing how much emotion their bond evokes. It’s definitely something that Bay’s take on Sam and Bumblebee lacked. They were a bit more like buddies, where you could really tell Charlie and Bee love each other.
Not everything quite glitters in Bumblebee, though. While it’s safe to say this film is leaps and bounds above recent Transformers outings, there are still some bumpy aspects to the film. While not enough to really drag the film down, the side characters aren’t great. Charlie’s mom and Ron seem like normal, everyday parents, but they’re also kind of corny or cartoony. It’s nowhere near as bad as Sam’s over-the-top parents, but they’re still given too much screentime. Same goes for her brother (step-brother?), Otis. He’s okay, but he’s also not very likeable or interesting. Charlie’s family seem to exist to solely to provide tension and opposition for Charlie, but not in a compelling way. And when the story tries to redeem them and involve them in the film’s action near the end, it doesn’t fit. Also, her peer characters–mostly antagonistic ones–are caricatures at best. Even the local guy Memo (really? Memo?) who likes Charlie is an odd duck. Ironically, while Bumblebee doesn’t overly sexualize young women like Bay’s films did, this film goes out of its way to have several teen boys take their shirts off to show off their physiques. It’s one of those “know your audience” conundrums where it feels like it’s meant for the wrong target audience, but Bay had that same problem with how he handled showing pretty girls on screen. (Maybe it’s just because the film was written by a woman–Christina Hodson–I don’t know, but it seems like a really odd choice.) Whatever the case, objectification still seems like an unnecessary problem in these films. Lastly, one of the story beats is borderline cringe-worthy at the end (I even heard someone in the theater say out loud, “Are you serious?”). I get that it’s part of the evolution of a character, to show how far they’ve come, but it doesn’t make the moment any less corny. Again, none of these complaints ruin the film by any means, but they do hold it back from being greater just a little. Granted, most teen-driven movies in the 80’s had these kinds of elements, so if the film team were really trying to emulate it, they succeeded.
The content in Bumblebee is the most tame of any of the modern day Transformers films. However, there’s still close to thirty uses of God’s name as an exclamation, mostly as “Oh my G-d,” and at least two uses of the “S” word clearly (there may have been a third earlier in the film when an explosion tosses Cena’s characters’ men around). Both Cena and Hailee say the other two pronounced uses of the “S” word in the film (both within a couple minutes of each other, too). Other language is mostly “h*ll” and “d*mn,” with the addition of 1 use of “*ss” and 1 use of Jesus’s name by Charlie’s mother. There is a little bit of blood in a couple scenes, mostly just from some scrapes. Cena’s character has a significant cut down the side of his face that’s pretty bloody early on in the movie. For the rest of the movie, we see it’s become a scar. Another character gets hurt from being thrown from an explosion, and we see that his arm is a bit bloody and scraped. Later, we see their arm in a sling. Charlie has some scrapes and bruises on her face as well. The two worst moments for younger viewers, however, are when a Decepticon blasts two human characters with its arm cannon, causing them to burst into a spray of clear goop (it reminded me of the bug exploding at the end of the first Men In Black). It’s not gruesome, but any young one sensitive to the concept will be startled. The first victim is a miscellaneous character (no one important to the story), while the second one is a minor side character. The rest of the violence involves robots fighting robots or blowing up military vehicles. Some of the scenes are a bit intense, like when one Decepticon kills an Autobot by slicing him in half vertically. Finally, there isn’t really much by way of sexual content, but a couple scenes show teenage boys taking off their shirts to expose their muscular builds. The first time happens after Charlie accidentally spills sodas on a guy she likes; the next time is when she asks a new male friend to take off his shirt so she can use it as a blindfold, and the last time is when the first guy strips down to his shorts to cliff jump. There’s quite a bit of emotional weight this time around–from Charlie dealing with the loss of her father, to trying to get by, dealing with peer bullying, and even Bee getting beaten up to near death a couple times. Overall, though, the content is much lighter in comparison to the other films.
Bumblebee is a finally a big step in the right direction for Transformers adventures on the big screen. It plays out like a classic 80s film, it’s loaded with a lot of heart, and it’s fun and exciting. (And its repurpose of the “You Got the Touch” song from the 1986 film was greatly appreciated.) It’s hardly perfect, though, as some of the side characters still feel like cartoon characters (and not in a good way), but for the most part, it’s the closest thing to getting a live action Transformers film right thus far, and further proof we just really needed Michael Bay to hand over the reins to someone else. Hopefully there’s more solid Transformers adventures to come soon!
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/27/18)
4K UHD / Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Bumblebee arrives on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray in a DVD/Digital HD combo pack, on DVD, and through the usual digital providers. The High Dynamic Range of select 4K releases–like this one–really works in the film’s favor, as it boosts the colorful palette of Bumblebee. The opening scene on Cyberton is especially gorgeous.Bumblebee In 4K UHD – As the 4K format continues to grow in popularity, it may be tough to decide which movies are worth springing the extra dollars for and which aren’t necessary. In any case, I always recommend Blu-Ray over other formats, like DVD (and even Digital, depending on your streaming capabilities and wifi signal strength). However, Bumblebee is definitely a good 4K option. The film is colorful, the HD is crisp, and the California scenery looks beautiful. It’s not the best 4K transfer I’ve seen, but it’s definitely solid.
Mini “Bumblebee” Comic Book – Some of the 4K Blu-Ray combo packs come bundled with a mini comic book that tells a new adventure starring Bumblebee. In this one, the Decepticon Soundwave comes to Earth and engages with Sector 7, which ends up introducing us to Agent Simmons, the eccentric agent from the previous Michael Bay Transformers films. In this story, Simmons is just a rookie and is first discovering the Transformers. The short booklet is continued/fleshed out in the “Sector 7 Adventures: The Battle at Half Dome” featurette on the disc (or iTunes Extras).
Sector 7 Archive —
Agent Burns: Welcome to Sector 7 (0:49) – John Cena talks to the camera as Agent Burns, addressing the viewer as someone visiting Sector 7. It feels like something lifted from a theme park ride. It’s kind of a weird thing to include here.
Sector 7 Adventures: The Battle at Half Dome (9:18) – This is the aforementioned motion comic featuring Simmons as a young soldier. Soundwave attacks the Sector 7 team and Bumblebee comes to the rescue. It’s all rather corny, actually. Soundwave also talks A LOT, to the point where half of what he says seems super farfetched as something any Transformer would ever say (Did a child write this?). But this comic seems to do its best to bridge the gap between Bumblebee and 2007’s Transformers movie. At the end, it reveals Megatron frozen in ice like in the original film. (1 “h*ll”)
Deleted and Extended Scenes (19:13) – There are 9 deleted scenes with a Play All option. Most of these are throwaway moments and I’m pretty happy they cut all of this–some more so than others. “Original Opening” (2:03) shows Bumblebee wounded during his encounter with Burns and running for his life. It’s narrated by Bee and is a more personal introduction to the character. Sadly, here he decides that humans aren’t worth fighting for. It’s darker and more ominous than the version in the film. Plus, the finished version gives us that glorious Cybertron scene. In “Drive to Karate Class” (2:41), Charlie brings Otis to his karate class and then she gets to work late. This scene introduces us to two of her coworker friends who actually tell her she’s “too dark” now to hang out with and not the same since her dad died. It’s a more serious and sad exchange. (1 “a” word, 1 “S” word) “Birthday Present” (2:16) is an extended version of what’s in the finished film. Here, she’s told by her mother to watch Otis for the day (on her birthday). Ron then tells Charlie that her hair is getting longer and it looks good (which inspires Charlie to trim it right away). In “Car Wash and Beetle Breakdown” (2:32), Charlie forces Otis to wash the car with her. It then breaks down at a stoplight and Otis abandons her and runs off. (1 “Oh my G-d”) These scenes show a lot more tension and fighting between her and Otis. “Charlie Drops Off Mona and Conan” (1:05) is right after Charlie drops off her mom and dog off at home. She then drives Bee to the beach. It’s almost the same scene, except after he gets sand on her accidentally, he picks her up and shakes her off. (1 “cr*p”) “Decepticons Inspect the Armory” (0:58) is a little scene featuring unfinished animation for the Decepticons as they look at weapons in the U.S. armory. “Drive to Cliff” (2:30) explains that Charlie gave Memo her sweatshirt for him to wear after he loses his shirt. They talk in the car about Bee and he suggests Bee is a Gobot (which is corny, but they were a competing robot-vehicle toy line of the 80’s). Then, at the cliff, Charlie runs into her coworkers from the earlier deleted scene, and they’ve aligned themselves with the snotty popular girls. (1 “J*sus”) “Sector 7” (0:43) shows a couple soldiers there talking amongst themselves, wondering about the Transformers’ origins. This also features some unfinished animation. (1 “a” word) “Appliance War” (4:25) is a large sequence that is an alternate version of what’s in the finished film. It takes place when Charlie and Memo find Bumblebee in Charlie’s house, wreaking havoc. When he plugs himself into the kitchen outlet, it causes the house’s appliances to come to life. They then attack Memo and Charlie, who fight them off (like a washing machine, dishwasher, TV). It’s super cheesy, and while the idea might have sounded fun on paper, it’s pretty ridiculous in execution, and I can’t see how it would have fit in the movie with the rest of its tone being much more serious.
These are certainly different. So, instead of the usual “outtakes” of people messing up lines, these are all just goofy riffing during scenes that play out like spoofs of the scenes they’re supposed to be. “Burns Meets Bee” (1:26) features the normal scene, but then drops in Cena riffing when he meets Bee, commenting on and joking about Bee’s size. (1 “h” word, 1 bleeped “F” word) “War Room” (2:22) is really, really goofy. Here, Cena as Burns pretends to talk to the president on the phone while meeting with the general. (1 written “You’re a d*ck”) “There’s a Door in My Way” (2:09) features Cena as Burns riffing while riding in a hummer. Then, when they go to blow open the door, Burns stands and watches for a very awkwardly long time as a soldier unspools wire for detonation. (1 “d*mn”) “Charlie in Trash” (0:42) is the scene where she’s hiding in the dumpster, but after the lid closes, she makes a comment about it not working (1 “S” word). In “Saved the World” (2:53), Burns and Memo riff two different takes about what he missed.
Bee Vision: the Transformers Robots of Cyberton (3:56) replays the epic Cybertron scene from the opening of the movie and highlights the major known Autobots and Decepticons by showing their names and some brief stats/facts about them.
Bringing Bumblebee to the Big Screen:
The Story of Bumblebee (3:54) – The president of Hasbro says Bee is his favorite character of the Transformers. To figure out who to make a spin-off movie about, the writers looked at the other movies to see who stood out. They then talk about developing the character for his own standalone adventure. (1 “oh my G-d”)
The Stars Align (7:04) focuses on the human actors in the film, casting Hailee as Charlie, and how challenging it is for her to act to a pole with a ball on it since Bee is otherwise completely a computer generated character. They also talk about casting John Cena and what it was like to work with him. (1 “h*ll”)
Bumblebee Goes Back to G1 (10:01) is about going back to the original toy and cartoon designs while trying to keep the design within the world of the movies. They show how they designed the different characters and express how much they loved doing it. Some say it was even a dream come true to go back to the G1 designs. (I, for one, am thrilled they did!)
Back to the Beetle (6:19) – They reveal here that Bumblebee had debuted in comics in 1984 even before the TV show first aired. They decided to return to classic VW Beetle and felt that it was a warmer vehicle for someone to have a personal relationship with. We even learn that they’d had 8 different classic VW bugs for filming–including a homemade electric one.
California Crusin’ Down Memory Lane (19:57) – This is more of a straightforward making-of featurette which talks about taking the production back to the 80s. They tried to find old school towns to film in but ended up building a lot of sets to capture the feel of the 80s. They talk about the props, bedroom designs, costumes, etc. They even showcase the boardwalk design, the cars they chose, and breakdown some of the key scenes, like the finale’s big showdown. Finally, the featurette ends with a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge for the movie’s last shot. (1 “cr*p”)
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/31/19)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Charlie accidentally bumps into a boy she likes while working, spilling a tray of sodas on him. He then takes off his shirt, revealing his muscular physique. The girls with him act very flirtatious towards him, while Charlie acts a bit flustered; Charlie asks Memo to take his shirt off. He awkwardly complies and hands her the shirt. She pops through Bee’s sunroof and puts the shirt over her eyes, but the wind blows it off. We see Memo without a shirt (revealing his muscular physique) for the rest of the scene; The guy Charlie likes strips down to his boxers to cliff dive; Some teen girls wear clothing that shows off their cleavage; We briefly see Charlie in a one-piece bathing suit in old footage on a VHS tape of a swim meet; Ron says that when he was going through puberty, he stole stuff too.
Vulgarity/Language: Roughly 27 takes on “G-d,” which were mostly “Oh my G-d;” 1 “J-sus,” 3 “S” words, 1 “a” word, 8 “h*ll,” 7 “d*mn,” 1 “cr*p,” 1 “balls”; Charlie wears a band t-shirt throughout a scene that has the word “D*mned” on it.
Alcohol/Drugs: When she notices he’s acting weird while covering for Charlie, Otis’ mom asks him if he’s on drugs.
Blood/Gore: We see a deep bloody gash on the side of Agent Burns’ face after an explosion. Through the rest of the film, he has a long scar there; After an explosion, Memo has a bloody arm, which isn’t really focused on. He also has some bloody scrapes on his face and neck; Charlie has some bloody scrapes on her face; At the end, Agent Burns has some new bloody scrapes on his face; A random guy at a truck stop gets blasted by Dropkick’s arm cannon, bursting the man into a spray of clear gloop; Dropkick shoots a scientist character, with a larger spray of gooey liquid resulting from it, splashing on the ground around him (Charlie sees it and reacts in horror); We see Otis throw up in the car (with a view of it coming out of his mouth); A pair of Decepticons interrogate an Autobot and then cut him in half vertically; We see a Decepticon use a spike on his arm to cut out Bumblebee’s voicebox. Other robots are seen getting decapitated or dismembered throughout the film.
Violence: We see the war raging on Cybertron, with many Autobots and Decepticons fighting each other; We see Agent Burns and his team in a paintball fight. One guy gets stuck in a trap in a tree and Burns playfully repeatedly shoots him with his paintball pistol; Bumblebee lands on earth in a fireball, tossing Burns’ team around. They chase him and then a pair of Decepticons show up to also chase and fight him; We see a Decepticon use a spike on his arm to cut out Bumblebee’s voicebox and then they throw him off a cliff. Bee passes out from his injuries; A fireball causes destruction at a truck stop. Another fireball destroys a man’s car. A Decepticon then shoots a man, blowing him into a spray of clear goo; Bee spits cassettes out of his stereo, smashing them into a wall; Military soldiers subdue Bee with harpoons and shocking him electrically. Charlie rushes to his side and touches him, getting shocked, too. The two then fall to the ground, unconscious; A Decepticon shoots an Autobot in an effort to execute him, but he is able to be revived with bursts from energy rifles; A pair of Decepticons interrogate an Autobot and then cut him in half vertically; Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s mom’s house as he looks around it and bumps into things, startling himself; Bee fights a Decepticon and cuts him to pieces using chains; Bee fights a Decepticon and nearly dies, so he shoots a wall, spilling water into a resevoir, with a ship smashing into the two of them; Bee goes on a shooting rampage against the military where his eyes turn red and he just continues to shoot vehicles and cause explosions that toss soldiers around; And some other action violence.