Why there’s a buzz about Bumblebee

I’ve been thinking about the new Bumblebee movie.

Bumblebee is not an especially thought-provoking film. It’s a film about a giant robot who fights other giant robots, and about how he loses his memory and makes friends with a girl who helps him get it back again. Somehow, though, Bumblebee works. I haven’t enjoyed watching a Transformers movie this much since 1986, and I was 7 years old back then.

The live-action Transformers films directed by Michael Bay are, let’s be honest, shit. Even the first one, which I enjoyed when it was released in 2007. They are noisy, nonsensical messes, brimming with juvenile humour, casual racism and outright misogyny.

Revenge of the Fallen has John Turturro announce that he is “directly below the enemy’s scrotum” in the middle of what should be a dramatic action set piece. Age of Extinction features a speech about why a grown man is legally allowed to date a teenager.

I’m nearly 40. I probably wasn’t the target audience for Bay’s films, even though I grew up with the original toys and cartoons and comics. Bay was convinced that he had to make his Transformers realistic, which seemed to translate as spiky and grey and hard to identify when they bashed together during hour-long fight scenes. He invented new characters who had no roots in the original stories and messed with the designs of fan favourites so that they were unrecognisable. I may not have been the target audience, but it was hard to say who the target audience actually was.

During the first 5 minutes of Bumblebee, I could pick out and name almost every Transformer that appeared on screen, even during a massive fight scene. My girlfriend told me that I was grinning like a loon.

Bumblebee does nothing different to the Bay films; in fact, it has all the same ingredients. It has big action set pieces, goofy jokes, and a dysfunctional set of humans at the forefront of the story. It has Sector 7, the government agency who underpin the Bay-verse films, and, while obviously written as a prequel to the Bay series, it has the same slippery grasp of continuity of the other films. The 2 primary antagonists are new characters, not from the original line-up.

But Bumblebee uses better quality ingredients.

That’s Shockwave. Shockwave! And Starscream!

The Transformers are realistically designed but they’re based on the old toys, so they are colourful and blocky and distinct. The action is easily parsed by the human eye. The jokes land, for the most part. The humans are relatable and not annoying, even the slightly kooky family. The story is simple to the point of formulaic, but it makes sense and doesn’t outstay its welcome. There are no slow-motion shots of Megan Fox’s arse or tiny comedy Decepticons humping her leg. You get the sense the film was actually directed and edited instead of being hurled together at random while toddlers screamed and banged metal toys together in the background.

I never thought I’d use this word about any Transformers media, but the word in my head when I left the cinema after watching Bumblebee was “joyful”.

Bumblebee is not a cinematic masterpiece. It is a film about giant robots hitting each other, with a nostalgia-ridden buddy movie for a middle act. But it is one of the best blockbuster films of the last 12 months. Go and see it.

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