In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan lifted restrictions on advertising, making it possible for Madison Avenue to directly target millions of little kids through commercials. An entire generation of consumer—emotionally unformed and highly susceptible to suggestion—was suddenly and wholly available for the exploiting. Why settle for 30-second spots during "educational" children's programming when 30-minute ads can be the programming! Enter Transformers, a clever toy line that allowed kids to turn semi-trucks into homicidal robots—and in the process, secured a prime position in the all-devouring ouroboros of pop-culture nostalgia, where the battle between Autobots and Decepticons would be perpetually recycled via multiple generations eagerly regurgitating their store-bought "childhoods" all over the tabula rasa of their babies' brains.
Here's a question prompted by the last 30 years of Transformers movies: "Is it even possible to make a good movie out of this shit?" I only ask because it seems attaining "goodness" has never been the point of any prior film. In 1986, the point was to free up shelf space by clearing out two years' worth of overstock. No matter how hard men of a certain age might have cried after filmmakers literally turned their toybox into a fucking snuff film, Optimus Prime & Co. were never characters in Transformers: The Movie. They were clearance inventory.
In 2007, the point was to harness Michael Bay's talent for turning mindless sensation into box-office gold, yoking yellowed memories of pew-pews gone by to expensive, shiny new strains of emotionally-stunted hyper-masculinity. Story wasn't even a tertiary concern, despite the presence of executive producer Steven Spielberg and an ineffectual armada of doomed writers who were tasked with at least trying to shape Bay's nihilistic anti-vision. There's really only so much you can do when the foundational intent is so craven and malicious. Forget polishing turds—the Bayformers series was more like slapping at a firehose full of metal diarrhea with a wet napkin and no goggles.
So is it possible to make a good Transformers movie? What would it even look like if you took these ingredients, with that history and gave them to people whose first priority was creating relatable characters and telling an actual story? Bumblebee is the answer, and it's a legitimately good one. Nothing about it ever threatens to edge into "great" territory, but it's winsome, earnest and good-hearted, and that's more than enough to make it easily the best movie in the series.
Here's the amazing thing about Bumblebee, the seventh theatrically-released blockbuster based on a line of toys for young children: It's the first one to present as a family film. The 1986 film was barely a movie, much less fit for children's consumption, and at no point in 2007 (or any time ever, really) did Bay give fuck one about tailoring his leering, sneering spectacle for family friendly tastes. But Bumblebee is (mostly) safe for kids ages six and up (just like the recommendation on the toy packaging!), and is often very fun. Imagine that—trying to have fun with your toys. Huh.
It's also formulaic as hell, but when contrasted against Bay's incoherent train of cinematic hatefucks, the presence of any formula is welcome. And if you pick the right recipe and execute it well, you're probably gonna end up with a pretty tasty plate. Bay's first Transformers barely managed a facsimile of humanity due to Spielberg's mandate it be "the story of a boy and his car." Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and writer Christina Hodson start from basically the same place, centering Bumblebee on a girl (Hailee Steinfeld) and her dog—a dog who just happens to be an amnesiac interstellar soldier who is also a Volkswagen Beetle. And for all the wasted waves of well-known names who have been smashed against Bay's cliffs of inanity (Frances McDormand! Anthony Hopkins! Leonard Nimoy! Fuckin' Buzz Aldrin!), Bumblebee's comparatively lesser-known cast is the first to consistently register as understandable, likable human beings. I cannot stress enough how miraculous this seems compared to what came before.
The story is largely unimportant—alien-robot puppy-car has to stop a robot-alien car-plane and a helicopter-car alien-robot (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) from Skyping the Decepticons to come burn Earth to a cinder—but most of what works in Bumblebee works on a character level, not a plot one. Steinfeld's Charlie Watson has an arc! Bumblebee does too! Animatronic G.I. Joe doll John Cena's got an arc! Charlie's mom (Pamela Adlon), her stepdad (a scene-thieving Stephen Schneider), her annoying Karate Kid wanna-be little brother—they all get arcs! Granted, they're not the most graceful collection of curves shaping a cinematic narrative, but still—that's pretty okay for about an hour and 40 minutes minus credits. Oh hey, speaking of which: This is a Transformers movie that ends in under two hours! I cannot stress enough how fucking miraculous this seems compared to what came before.
Director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson center Bumblebee on a girl and her dog—a dog who just happens to be an amnesiac interstellar soldier who is also a Volkswagen Beetle.
But there are times where, because Bumblebee is a prequel, what came before starts poking its shitty, unwelcome little turtlehead into frame. There are still "hero" robots committing fairly heinous acts of brutal murder. There's a couple scenes where villain robots literally explode humans into geysers of snot. And when the film comes to its mostly-satisfying conclusion, Bee decides to change shape into a Camaro for the first time, forcing a reconciliation between the disarmingly charming 'bot you just had a blast with for 90 minutes and the towering, glowering thing from 2007 whose most "endearing" moment was pissing gallons of oil onto John Turturro's hairy back.
I guess it could be argued that Knight and Hodson lean a little too heavily on Bumblebee's manner of "speaking" as a shortcut to unearned emotion by making the Bug a rolling mixtape of the '80s greatest hits, and there are more than a few superficial, pandering moments of "Hey, it looks just like mah cartoons!" (The film cold opens on essentially a direct adaptation of the back-of-the-box art from 1984.) But Bumblebee is a movie that engenders easy forgiveness. "Greatest Transformers movie ever" is a pretty low bar, I know. But it turns out you can make a good movie out of this shit. The novelty of genuinely liking a Transformers movie for its characters (!) might wear off pretty soon, but I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.