The Transformers franchise has made bloated, histrionic pandemonium such a thing that the modest Bumblebee, for all its derivativeness, feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s been 11 years since director Michael Bay’s first entry in the series, and with each new one, he seemed to set new standards in onscreen cacophony. Now, finally, the franchise has switched directors — to the somewhat unlikely Travis Knight, of the independent stop-motion studio Laika. His previous effort was the delicately melancholy animated film Kubo and the Two Strings, and he was also lead animator on such creepily charming pictures as Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman. Now working with live action (or, well, “live” “action”), he doesn’t exactly reinvent the form. But it is genuinely surprising how different this new installment is from previous Transformers flicks.
The movie even seems to nod to that idea, with an inspired bait and switch right at the beginning. It opens in the middle of a huge, apocalyptic war on Cybertron (the Transformers’ home planet), with explosions and chaos and flying robots everywhere. Amid this cataclysm of steel and fire, Autobot Resistance leader Optimus Prime sends his loyal lieutenant Bumblebee, then known as B-127, off to a newly discovered planet called Earth to protect its people and await his comrades’ arrival. So the robot zooms off into space. But two of the evil Decepticons also make their way to our planet.
But the Bayhem largely stops there. Instead, the rest of the movie plays like a robot variation on E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, as we’re dropped into the uneventful world of awkward Bay Area teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). She works the hot-dog stand at a local amusement park, and is still wrestling with the recent loss of her dad and her mom’s decision to move on to a new man. Eager for a new car on her 18th birthday, she finds Bumblebee, now posing as a decrepit yellow Volkswagen Beetle, in a lot filled with discarded vehicles, and immediately decides she wants him. Soon enough, the sentient giant fighting-robot car from another galaxy is awakened, and the bewildered girl tries to learn more about her alien automobile.
As those who’ve seen the other Transformers movies can tell you, Bumblebee doesn’t speak; his voice box was destroyed by the Decepticons (we actually see the deed happen here), so instead he samples prerecorded sounds — ads, radio announcements, songs, etc. — transmitted via his radio to communicate. But in his early days on Earth, he hasn’t learned to do that yet, so the girl and her new automotive friend do some cute miscommunicating. Again, it’s all very E.T. — as is all the adorable chaos Bumblebee causes at home when left to his own devices. Meanwhile, government soldiers led by John Cena are seeking the robot car — not because they want to learn about him but because they’ve been co-opted by the two Decepticons, Shatter and Dropkick, who’ve pursued Bumblebee to Earth and want him to give up the location of the Autobot Resistance.
Steinfeld is an enormously talented actress, and the film knows to spend some time with her and not try to hurry things along to the next big set piece. What’s most admirable about Bumblebee is that it gives us a real sense of this girl, with her cool band T-shirts and her unreconciled feelings of abandonment and her general clumsiness. Even the constant, slightly-too-insistent soundtrack of 1980s pop hits — the year is 1987 — feels justified when considered in the light of a confused, impatient teenager’s whipsawing moods. Bumblebee feels like a movie she might have made.
The action sequences, when they do come, are also fairly modest — the all-out, citywide destruction porn of the previous films is mostly a thing of the past — and cleanly, effectively handled. Again, almost as if to thumb its nose at the dissonance of Bay’s directorial style, Knight and his team make sure that we always know where everything is, and how far. So much so that at a couple of points I found myself slightly missing the gonzo, go-for-broke bravado of those earlier pictures. That is perhaps the contradiction at the heart of Bumblebee: Its restraint feels like a necessary corrective to the earlier movies’ gargantuosity, but in the end, we’re all still here for the exploding, fighting robots.