Bumblebee represents what the live action Transformers franchise should have been from day one: unapologetic popcorn entertainment with heart. Of course, the potential for genuine emotional investment was always built into the series’ DNA; it is, after all, a “boy and his car” story in which the car is also a sentient alien robot. Unfortunately, Michael Bay’s skewed narrative priorities consistently squandered that opportunity; he understood the inherent appeal of badass giant mechs and the importance of human characters to anchor the more fantastical elements, but never quite wrapped his head around the fact that both components require personality in order to keep the audience engaged—otherwise, the explosive, kinetic battle sequences are merely chaotic colors and noise.
Luckily, Travis Knight excels at balancing flash and substance. At Studio Laika, he and his collaborators imbued such stop-motion puppets as Coraline, Kubo, and ParaNorman with souls, and here, he applies those skills to CGI, with similarly impressive results. Indeed, he may have been a bit too successful in this regard: the opening prologue makes a compelling argument that a photorealistic animated feature set entirely on Cybertron would make for one hell of a cinematic adventure. But Bumblebee isn’t that movie; no, this comparatively grounded tale is more interested in how the relationship between the eponymous Autobot scrapper and Charlie—a young Earthling struggling to cope with the tragic death of her father—gradually heals both of their deep-seated psychological scars.
Because Bumblebee’s plot is built on a foundation of John Hughes, Shane Black, and Amblin tropes, some viewers might accuse it of being overly nostalgic. Luckily, I absolutely adore all of those creators, making the film an ideal marriage of disparate stylistic trademarks—in other words, it’s a winner in my book!