Let’s get one thing out of the way, because it’s going to be simultaneously the most and least important thing to be grappled with regarding Bumblebee (to the extent that our culture has arrived at a point where the Transformers movies are something we’re expected to grapple with at all — though that’s an entirely different discussion.)
Yes, it’s true that Bumblebee is the best Transformers movie, far and away, not just in the sense that every other Transformers movie has been very bad but in the sense that this is an actual damn good movie. On balance it’s just about the best thing one could reasonably expect anyone to make out of the Transformers as a concept even before the Michael Bay movies.
Yes, it’s also true that Bumblebee is both very consciously a big, affectionate bear-hug to old-school G1 Transformers fandom, with Bee himself and other characters redesigned to more closely resemble their 1980s toy and animated series versions. The story is also set in the mid-’80s and self-consciously apes the nostalgia aesthetic of the period a la Stranger Things. Bumblebee stays as far away from Michael Bay’s style as possible and — though this doesn’t appear to have been the plan they started with — at some point morphed from prequel to a stealth reboot of the franchise that effectively erases the mythos, opening the door to starting things over in a more traditional vein going forward.
However, as unavoidable as I’m aware it is to even suggest restraint in these cases, it would be inaccurate to say that Bumblebee is good “because” the characters have have returned to the Transformers G1 aesthetic. That would be dismissive of just how good a job the filmmakers, actors, and character animators did on what must have looked like a fairly unforgiving project going in. Fixing one of the most widely reviled (yet profitable) franchises of the last decade required more than a sheen of performative subservience to Generation X nostalgia. A different look still wouldn’t make all the bloat, bad writing, and “LaBeoufing” suddenly become tolerable.
That’s not to say that there isn’t something to the notion that this quintessentially mid-’80s franchise doesn’t benefit significantly from a more direct immersion in it’s retro roots. Seeing Bumblebee once again become a Volkswagen Beetle, a G1-style Seeker transform from jet to bot in mid flight, Soundwave deploying Ravage from his chest as part of a big fight sequence that also involved Optimus Prime, Shockwave and … a couple others I think might be spoilers dropped my jaw. I waited a long time to see that!
But the plain fact is Bumblebee is such a confidently put together, fully-realized, genuinely fun little film that it’d still be the best Transformers movie and one of 2018’s nicest surprises even without this low-key gratuitous fan service. All that stuff is pretty much relegated to a flashback, a couple brief cutaways and intro/outro scenes that were probably originally meant to showcase the Bumblebee backstory talked up in Transformers: The Last Knight. (The too clever by half “find your voice” theme is still built around explaining the “broken voice module” character detail from the originals, even though this isn’t technically a prequel to those anymore. It’s odd, but doesn’t really hurt anything because it remains a fun personality quirk for the lead.)
Otherwise, though, the majority of Bumblebee stays admirably committed to being a smaller, more heartfelt (if no less bombastic in the action department) breed of Transformers movie that owes more to The Iron Giant than to even its own animated robot ancestors. Having fled the fall of Cybertron for Earth circa-1987 and damaged both his ability to speak and his memory shortly after landing, Bee ends up in disguise as the fixer-upper car of Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). The troubled teenager is a gender-reversed tomboy gearhead version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s Elliott who finds in Bee’s friendship and plight a literalized metaphor for her habit of burying herself in auto repairs to spiritually reconnect with her dead father. (Repairing Bee will help him finish downloading a key message from HIS father figure Optimus Prime. Get it?)
But Transformers didn’t divide its robots into rival teams to not have them fight, so Bee is also being pursued by a pair of Decepticon “Triple-Changers” (they can be robots, cars and planes, which is somewhat less special-feeling in the movies where it’s established these characters can all change their alt-modes pretty regularly). The bad guys employ the surprisingly not-terrible scheme of simply introducing themselves to the U.S. military as “The Good Aliens” and asking for help in hunting down Bumblebee (“a fugitive from our planet”) so they can find out where Prime and the Autobot resistance is hiding out.
Robot-punching, self-finding and MacGuffin-smashing commences, but always with focus centered where it belongs: on the surprisingly well-rendered and emotionally resonant friendship between a girl and her (kind-of) talking robot car. An oddly subdued but game as ever John Cena is also on hand as the military commander who suspects he’s getting hoodwinked by the Decepticons (first clue being, y’know, they’re … called that). It’s a simple, two-character “run away from the bad guys, run toward the bad guys, fight the bad guys” family action movie pack with ‘80s toy nostalgia that works so much better than it deserves to.
This is thanks to a very sharp screenplay by Christina Hodson and the steady directorial hand of Laika veteran Travis Knight, making his live action debut after his breakout animated sleeper Kubo and The Two Strings. Knight knows how to make animated characters come to life and block out an action scene, but he also turns out to be a steady hand with actors — even though the characterizations and motives of everyone not a Transformer or played by Hailee Steinfeld are somewhat inconsistent from scene to scene (possibly as a result of the post-production “prequel to reboot” tinkering).
Regardless, Bumblebee is a shockingly solid franchise-best feature. Fans are destined to overpraise it for a handful of extraneous moments, but its still stands on its own. And, sure, you bet your ass if this is a hit and they announce a greenlight for Prime in a few weeks I’ll be all over it.