Filed under: Reviews
Let me start by saying that I have a troubled relationship with the Transformers film franchise. I am a Gen-X Gen 1 Transformers lover who dreamt of owning my own Metroplex play set. (For the uninitiated, G1 stands for Generation 1, the original lineup of Transformers made popular when released as toys in the 80s.) I grew up saving my paper route money to ride to the local toy store in order to buy a Transformer. When I couldn't afford the big ones, I'd get the little tapes that went into Soundwave and transformed into animals. I watched the original cartoon religiously and continued to watch through to Beast Machines: Transformers (1996). For further context, I was multiple years into university by that point. The interesting part of these later cartoons is they were still geared at their original audience, so their story continued to develop and grow more complex and adult as it went on.
When they announced Steven Spielberg, the director of some of my favourite films of all time, was producing a Transformers movie, I was pumped. When they announced Michael Bay was directing it, I didn't really take any notice because I had, to that point, not been familiar with his work. Then I went to Transformers and had my heart broken harder than when Optimus Prime was killed during The Transformers: The Movie (1986) and was more shocked than when Spike dropped a naughty word in that film (which was still far less disturbing than 97% of what he said in the Bay films). What they did to Spike, the audience proxy of the classic G1 cartoon, was messed up, and renaming him to Sam was the least of their sins. What they did to the Transformers themselves was just an insult to the characters.
Going into this review, I was unclear where the series would pick up, so I rewatched every Transformers movie from the first through to Bumblebee (2018), and I am happy to tell you that you do not need to do this. Transformers 1 through 5 were militaristic anti-government propaganda films clothing recruitment ads in children's toys whilst pumping it full of testosterone and toxic masculinity. (Seriously, in the 5th film, Mark Wahlberg's character compliments a young girl by calling her "bro" every time she did something he was proud of.)
Now Bumblebee, on the other hand, was a charming film that merged the sensibilities of Spielberg's E.T. with a plucky young hero of a modern YA story, and a pleasingly realistic portrayal of the 80s. I'm happy to inform you that THIS is the only film you need to watch in the Transformers saga up until now. At the close of Bumblebee it was unclear if this was simply a prequel or a clean break from the Bayhem of the Bay Transformers movies, but after watching Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, I am ecstatic to say the Bay Transformers are their own thing and this is a new series unique and self contained. If you've not seen Bumblebee, don't worry, there's nothing you'll miss by not having seen it. Go back and watch it later to help with some of the backstory, but this film is entirely self contained and catches you up quickly and organically.
The film shifts focus to new Transformers and includes some faces and vehicles fans of the G1 and The Transformers: The Movie will be happy to see, including Arcee as seen on the poster, a character very underserviced in the prior film entries. Moving forward from Bumblebee's setting of 1987 to 1994, we find the Transformers still stranded on Earth and looking for a way home. While blending in and laying low, they encounter Noah (Anthony Ramos), who Mirage (Pete Davidson) takes an immediate shine to. They then team up with Elana (Dominique Fishback) to track down a mysterious object that holds the key to the future of the Transformers. There is a delightful chemistry between Anthony and Dominique that is not at all forced. They seem to genuinely get along, and the affection that develops between the two characters is organic and pleasant to watch.
An additional human member of the cast is Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), Noah's little brother, and this is the true heart of the film. Vazquez plays Kris with a genuine toughness that you can only see in kids who've grown up experiencing things that no child should, and a kindness that only children can truly demonstrate. I hope he's back for future installments as the energy between Noah and Kris was like real siblings.
Making up our metal protagonists we have an all-star cast including the characters Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), Wheeljack (Cristo Fernández of Ted Lasso), Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), Rhinox (David Sobolov), Stratosphere (John DiMaggio), the previously-mentioned Arcee (Liza Koshy) and Mirage (Pete Davidson), plus Optimus Primal (Ron Perlmen) and THE Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen. These are excellent performers who give these characters real heart. I can't say who they are fighting without dropping spoilers, but Peter Dinklage, Colman Domningo, MJ Rodriguez, and Tobe Nwigwe all put in amazing turns as baddies who generate real fear.
In two hours, it elicited genuine laughs, some real fear (including one potent jump scare), pleasant nostalgia, and world and character building that all five of the Bay films never achieved, despite bloated run times and the backing of the U.S. Military Industrial Complex. Director Steven Caple Jr. created a film that mirrored Bumblebee director Travis Knight's look and feel in a way that helped it maintain continuity but felt fresh and its own thing. The added bonus, which I can't say about ANY of the Bay films, is this is a film the entire family can enjoy. The kids will never feel lost due to fanservice for 40-year-olds, and the adults will enjoy some sweet nostalgia with music from their youth and some call backs for Transformer fans. Like the Beast Wars and Beast Machines cartoons, this is still geared towards kids, but it's also matured from the toxic dreck that Bay shoveled out, becoming a film where there's a core moral that is inspirational, the robots transform in ways that make sense, and you don't feel dirty for just watching it. (And I have to say, the writers added a delightful treat for those of us not fans of the first batch of Transformer films that is amazingly cheeky and wonderfully meta.)
Lastly, there's one moment I cannot share, but if you are of a certain age you will let out a yelp of joy, because it's truly executed in a way that has left me excited for what the future of Transformers is bringing to the screen. Grab some popcorn and a soda, and don't for get to buckle up for a fun ride starting on June 9. Now roll out!