“Bumblebee” opens with a scene so completely alien to the Michael Bay-spawned “Transformers” universe that you almost want to give the movie a standing ovation then and there. It’s a coherent action set piece. Primus be praised, it’s an actual coherent action set piece. In a series that has stagnated for over a decade in hyperactive editing, impenetrable or flat-out unfinished effects and a misplaced focus on boring human characters, the battle of Cybertron that opens “Bumblebee” isn’t just a breath of fresh air. It’s the first breath this misbegotten franchise has breathed period since 2007.
It would be easy to write about the opening scene ad nauseum, but to do so would be a disservice to the rest of “Bumblebee.” After barely escaping the Battle of Cybertron with his life, the titular character (voiced briefly by Dylan O’Brien, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure”) crash lands on Earth in 1987, where he is quickly found by 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, “Pitch Perfect 3”). The two form a close bond, but find themselves in danger from the US military, who have been tricked into allying themselves with the Decepticons.
For all “Bumblebee”’s merits, it does have one glaring flaw: It doesn’t grow a story until its final third. Before that, it relies mostly on coming-of-age clichés and disconnected scenes that play perfectly fine but don’t build any larger plot. Charlie and Bee are never moving towards anything; they’re just buying time until the Decepticons finally put their plan into motion and they have to evade the military and save the world. For a film that, at its best, is thrilling and delightful, to see it tied together with such a threadbare plot becomes intensely frustrating. There’s also the matter of John Cena (“Blockers”) as Agent Burns, who has a personality in his first scene that magically disappears when he’s fingered as the human antagonist of a film that has absolutely no need of a human antagonist. Cena feels miscast, but more importantly, the part itself is just unnecessary.
Yet for all its flaws, “Bumblebee” is almost impossible not to like. The relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee rightfully takes center stage for most of the runtime and the bond that forms between them is sweet and funny all at once — Bumblebee’s attempt at teenage vandalism gave me one of my biggest laughs of the year. Early scenes portray him as almost a teenager himself, so it’s just as much his coming-of-age story as it is his human counterpart’s.
The action never reaches the heights that it does during the opening scene, but the same craftsmanship remains constant throughout the picture. Where the carnage of previous “Transformers” films exemplified everything wrong with the modern blockbuster, “Bumblebee” thrives on shots of gorgeously rendered action that last long enough for the audience to become enthralled in the size and scale of it all. When the Transformers go hand-to-hand, it doesn’t just resemble two jagged hunks of metal being smashed into each other by an especially poorly behaved toddler, it takes the form of what can only be described as “robot martial arts,” and the simplified character designs — which, along with the sound effects, recall the original TV show — make it easier to appreciate the genuinely great choreography. Travis Knight made his directorial debut just two years ago with Laika’s extraordinary “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and it’s clear his experience in the animation world has carried over into a fantastic eye for CG-heavy live action.
More than any of these live-action “Transformers” films, “Bumblebee” has a heart. It’s actually interested in its characters and letting them grow. There are no masturbatory shots of cool cars or the American flag. There’s no mythology so dense you forget these are films for children. There are no racial stereotypes. The female lead isn’t treated solely as a sex object, a damsel in distress or an annoying sidekick. Instead, the newest installment — which plays almost like a reboot at times — improves on slop like “Age of Extinction” and even the passable first installment of the franchise in nearly every conceivable way. The story “Bumblebee” tells isn’t perfect, but it’s a soaring leap in the right direction.