American films

Bumblebee film review: Transformers spin-off is franchise’s most character-driven outing yet

  • With more humour and heart than any of its predecessors, this film never lets the action swamp the story
  • Set in the 1980s, the film’s soundtrack is stuffed with tracks from the likes of Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, A-ha and The Smiths
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 12:10pm

3/5 stars

Watching the first moments of Transformers spin-off Bumblebee, you could be forgiven for thinking the franchise’s regular director Michael Bay was back in the hot seat.

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Set on the faraway planet of Cybertron, a battle rages as Autobots leader Optimus Prime sends his fellow robot scout B-127 to Earth to hide out before the evil Decepticons discover their whereabouts. It’s loud, garish and typical of the five Bay-directed films based on the Hasbro toys.

Yet Bumblebee lacks the signature carnage of Bay’s films. Directed by Travis Knight, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated stop-motion fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings , it’s an origin story with more humour and heart than any of its predecessors.

The year is 1987 and when B-127 makes it to Earth, he’s soon being chased by a military posse led by John Cena’s muscular military agent, until he hides out. The next thing we know, teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) has discovered a dusty old yellow VW Beetle in a junkyard. It is B127 in disguise, of course.


Charlie soon realises that this clapped-out banger has some very special modifications, and a bond grows between her and this creature she nicknames Bumblebee. It’s almost as cute as the crush Charlie’s fellow worker at the local funfair, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jnr) has on her.

This being the Eighties, it gives Knight the excuse to litter the soundtrack with tracks from Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, A-ha and others. Arguably, some slightly lazy nostalgia is at work here, but when Charlie fits Bumblebee with a working tape deck and he spits out a cassette of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, you can’t help but smile. Likewise, his love of Judd Nelson’s salute at the end of The Breakfast Club is endearing.

Cleverly, Bumblebee is unable to speak after a Decepticon rips out his voice synthesiser early on, requiring some innovative thinking on his part when it comes to communication.

It all adds up to the most character-driven Transformers movie since the days of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. There is plenty of action, with two Decepticon robots hunting Bumblebee down, but it never swamps the story.

True Grit star Steinfeld really sells her role to perfection – the outsider tomboy with a love for The Smiths, who finds much-needed friendship on this journey. Bumblebee is a surprisingly enjoyable ride for a franchise that felt like it’d long since rusted over.

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