Bumblebee: good in all the ways the previous Transformers movies were bad

Kudos to Tim Skirvin for crystalizing my (and a lot of people's) impression of the movie into something short enough to be a post title.

Was Transformers: Bumblebee the best movie I saw this year?  Nah, not even the best move I saw that weekend, since I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the day before I saw Bumblebee.

Was Transformers: Bumblebee the best Transformers movie?  Yes, just edging out 1986's Transformers: the Movie (which had better original music, admittedly, but TF:BB's aggressively 80s soundtrack was no slouch either).

Was Transformers: Bumblebee the best live-action Transformers movie?  Not even a contest, man.  Sadly, that well has been pretty badly poisoned, and I suspect a lot of people have given up on the franchise as being nothing but big dumb explosions with a side of bodily function humor and female exploitation.  But as noted in the title, this movie is not a Bayformers movie...despite claims by writer and director, it barely even fits into the same continuity.

So, yes, I'm going to give away some plot details, but most of the juicy spoilers are going to involve comedy beats and the like rather than plot points.  The plot itself is pretty straightforwards, if not the sort of plot you'd expect.

I'll start with the non-spoilery elements, to give you time to leave the page lest your eyes stray upon things you want to be surprised by.
He only looks like this for a minute or two, but don't
worry, there'll be a toy of it soon enough.

To start with, there's the designs.  They retain the somewhat disturbing faces of the Bayformers, eschewing flexible metal for a pile of moving shards and plates to give the characters expressiveness.  And a lot of the "greebles" are the same.  But that's where the similarities end.  This movie isn't afraid to make the Cybertronians look distinct from each other, colorful and iconic.  It's not the simplicity of the original cartoons, of course, but during the opening scene on Cybertron it's possible to tell everyone apart (except the generic jet grunts, and even they are at least differently colored).  If you remember much of the original cartoon, you can even identify characters like Arcee, Wheeljack, and Ratchet (none of whom look like their Bayformer versions).  Even in the turmoil of battle, the camera is steady enough and holds a view long enough to let the viewer figure out what's going on, to boot.

There's an extra level of challenge here, because several characters go through multiple vehicle modes over the course of the movie, so it's important to have them remain recognizable even as the vehicle bits hanging off their bodies change.

Okay, that should be enough about aesthetics to insulate the spoiler-averse.

Here's the big thing: the main human character, an 18-year-old young woman named Charlie, is never treated as a sex object.  The camera never lingers on her butt.  She's always fully clothed (she even flops into bed fully clothed, she's a bit of a slob) except for one flashback scene where she's in a one-piece bathing suit (and it's not a sexy scene by a long shot).  The plot never forces her to strip down to underwear, and when her clothing gets damaged in an action scene, it's stuff like torn sleeves.  In fact, the cliche gets flipped around and on two occasions Charlie is responsible for a male character losing his shirt (to reveal a well-toned torso).  There are certainly vain, sex-object women in the setting, but they're incidental characters, or minor "mean girl" antagonists.

NOT something you'll see in TF: Bumblebee.
In the previous Bayformers movies, the female characters were either prizes to be won, or at least you got the impression that they were largely there as eye candy, even if they were "strong, competent women."  Yeah, zooming in on Mikaela's butt as she leans in under Bumblebee's hood was really empowering, guys.  None of that sort of thing here.

Now the next layer.  This movie is not set in the 1980s, not exactly.  It's set in the version of the 1980s seen in teen movies like Better Off Dead, Breakfast Club, Less Than Zero, and so forth.  Of course Charlie has a job working fast food at a seaside amusement park.  Of course she ends up spilling a tray of drinks and food on someone.  Of course someone else working at the park has a crush on her.  Of course her little brother is taking Karate lessons and is an insufferable twerp about it.  And so forth.

But what about the action scenes?  Well, there's chase scenes that do have partners in the teen movies, but we also get the 1980s of movies like Wargames and The Wizard, complete with wireframe computer screen effects.  Even the Cybertronians' heads-up displays use wireframe stuff that looks like it came out of an early arcade game.  It makes it feel like this was a movie made in the 80s, that happened to find some actual Cybertronians to act in it...but the FX were still done using human tech.

So, a movie not so much set in our 1980s as a movie that feels like it was made in the 1980s.  Hey, if you're going to push the nostalgia buttons in the first place, might as well mash the whole panel.

And now, the plot, which is not the sort of thing we usually see in an action movie.
This Horse Movie was direct to
Canadian Netflix.  No, I'm not going
to watch it to see how well it fits the
plot outline I'm describing here.

As others have said before me, this was a Horse Movie.

Now, I haven't seen many of these, especially not the more recent made-for-TV/video sort that has become notorious for being as formulaic as a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie, but here's roughly how the plot goes:

We start with a troubled teenager.  Originally it was usually a boy, but lately Horse Movies have been about teenaged girls instead.  She's troubled because something has changed her life in a way that is either negative, or that she considers negative.  Usually it involves moving out to the sticks, away from all of her friends, but it can also involve a divorce or a dead parent.  Everyone else is fine with the new situation, but the protagonist is not.

After establishing that she is Not Happy with her life, the Girl encounters the Horse.  Sometimes she rescues the Horse from trouble, but usually the Horse is in a stable...for now.  Horse is a Bad Horse, according to its owner.  No one can ride the Horse without risking imminent death.  The Horse is destined for the knackers, but the Girl sees something special in the Horse, and insists she can make him better.

And so, the Girl bonds with the Horse.  Whatever was broken about him that made him unridable, she fixes.  And for a time in the middle of the story, they're happy together, even if her parents don't approve and everyone thinks she'll get herself killed.

Then the big complication appears.  Maybe she has to buy the Horse to save it.  Maybe her family's house/farm is going to be foreclosed on.  Whatever it is, it's just a pretext to make the Girl and the Horse compete in something.  Maybe it's a race, maybe it's a diving competition.  Whatever it is, they win, the naysayers recognize that the Horse is a Good Horse after all, and the Girl is emotionally healed and able to move on with life.

Got it?  Well, Bumblebee is the Horse, Charlie is the girl with a deceased father she can't stop mourning (not helped by her mom getting a boyfriend), the stables are a junkyard, everyone does think Bumblebee is unsafe to drive, and the race is a big fight scene to save the planet rather than just the farm.

Rather than another rehash of the standard Campbellian Hero's Journey, it's a 1980s Teen Comedy meets Horse Movie.  Damned clever of them.  And pretty well done.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), a long time online reviewer of comics, an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO .
Bumblebee: good in all the ways the previous Transformers movies were bad Bumblebee: good in all the ways the previous Transformers movies were bad Reviewed by Dvandom on Thursday, December 27, 2018 Rating: 5
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