Bumblebee Film Review: Transforming the franchise

Travis Knight has taken over from Michael Bay to bring audiences a Transformers origin film, which prompts us to fall in love with our favourite auto-bot Bumblebee all over again. We learn why it is the auto-bots came to earth in the first place, how Bumblebee lost his ability to speak and what events lead to the yellow transformer developing such a tight bond with humanity.

Knight has given the franchise a restyling with a new animation style and most noticeably, a much more age-appropriate thematic direction. The previous Transformers films were caught somewhere between a kid’s movie and a teenager’s fantasy, and never quite landed on a definitive path. The result was a somewhat cringy compilation of explosions, robot fights and scantily dressed women covered in mechanical oil. The newest instalment has settled on a more kid-friendly approach to the franchise. The central character 18-year-old Charlie Watson, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is portrayed as an average teenager rather than a Hollywood version of a young teen. Her semi-romantic relationship with boy-next-door Memo is sweet, and it was refreshing to see their relationship progress in a slow and realistic direction for kids their age. Audiences root for the pair’s gentle romance, and a kiss on the cheek was a fulfilling climax for the young love interests.

While Knight has certainly excelled in his youthful approach to the franchise, this was one of the only successful developments to the series. The new styling of the robots was a total flop. The once gritty and intimidating aliens have a sleek and overly animated new look, making them appear smaller, less realistic and hardly threatening. The generations were more reminiscent of an animated tv show than a high budget Hollywood production, making the creatures look cheesy rather than powerful. The fight sequences were underwhelming compared to the high budget extravaganzas of the previous instalments. This resulted in an almost anti-climactic final showdown, where the big power moves, instead of being shocking and flinch-worthy, were tame and even comical.

Despite a refreshingly un-sexualised depiction of an eighteen-year-old girl, this was where the impressive characterisations stopped. Every character seemed like a caricature of a cinematic stereotype rather than a developed persona. From the gruff but sweet mechanical mentor to the mean school girls and the stomach-churningly cheerful family, every character was one we had seen a thousand times before. The worst offender was John Cena’s character, Agent Burns. His role was caught between a vengeful army officer who is too consumed by his hatred for the alien robots to see them clearly and a logical officer who is in touch with the reality of this new war. The result is an entirely pointless role which is given so much screen time that audiences are grappling to find the significance of the character but are coming up short. It seems that the star power of John Cena is enough for Knight to justify a wholly unnecessary and inconsequential character. The rest of the roles are less confused, but are two-dimensional and provide audiences with no opportunity to enjoy them for anything more than a stereotype. Viewers are positioned to identify with, and root for Charlie but even her character has a limited emotional range and gives a cliché and superficial presentation of a teen going through troubles.

With unenthralling characters and lacklustre action sequences, it is hard to identify what Knight intended the focal point of the film to be. The Transformers franchise brings in audiences with the name alone, but if films of this calibre continue to make up the series, it is unlikely this draw will continue.