In the beginning, he was the smallest and weakest of the Autobots. Today, he is one of the most popular of all Transformers and stars in his own movie, “Bumblebee,” opening Jan. 8, the first Transformer to do so. This is how he did it.
The character who became Bumblebee began as a tiny plastic toy. In Japan, Toy company Takara launched the Microchange line in 1983. These were actual-sized everyday objects that turned into robots. The toy that later became Bumblebee began as a Mini Car Robo, literally super deformed toy cars that became robots, explaining 03 Volkswagen Beetle’s weirdly shaped form.
When American toy company Hasbro combined the Micro Change and Diaclone lines to create the Transformers, Bumblebee became a life-sized Beetle car that became a yellow robot. Part of the inaugural 1984 Minibot line, he was now given the name Bumblebee, most likely by series encyclopedia writer Bud Budiansky. The smallest toy in the first wave of Autobots, his function was espionage. He was described as the “physically weakest Autobot” but his stealth compensates for this inadequacy. In a prophetic happening, his motto was: “The least likely can be the most dangerous.”
Bumblebee got a big break when the original “Transformers” cartoon, animated by Sunbow, began airing in the United States. The amiable and wiseacre Bumblebee (voiced by Dan Gilvezan) was now leader Optimus Prime’s sidekick and the close friend of human Spike Witwicky. Throughout the G1 continuity, Bumblebee was the plucky sidekick and friend to humans.
There has been a Bumblebee in almost all the following Transformers shows. He was still the plucky comic relief at the time, but was quite popular on shows like “Transformers Animated.”
Things started to change when Michael Bay released the first live-action “Transformers” movie in 2007. While Bumblebee was still the protector of human Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a role he would keep until 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” he was now a 1977 Chevy Camaro (look closely as the car right next to the old Camaro in the used car lot is a yellow Volkswagen Beetle) that later changes to a sleek concept Camaro, though still in the iconic yellow-and-black livery. Bay also introduced Bumblebee’s speech gimmick. Ratchet explains that Bumblebee’s voice box has been damaged, so Bumblebee can only talk through bits of radio chatter put together. This is basically how Bumblebee is portrayed until the most recent movie, 2017’s “Transformers: The Last Knight.” When Optimus Prime is turned evil and attacks the Autobots on Earth, it is Bumblebee who leads the fight back. This is important because on TV (notably 2015’s “Transformers: Robot in Disguise”) and in the IDW comic book, Bumblebee ascends to the position of leader of the Autobots.
Unfortunately, “The Last Knight” exemplified the critical onslaught that the Bayverse “Transformers” movies had received and now, the studio wanted to try something new without giving up too much of what made the “Transformers” movies sell so well.
This brings us to “Bumblebee,” the new movie that is both prequel to the Bayverse and a soft reboot by itself. The film fits in the previous films’ timeline but can also be watched on its own. This is a new starting point for a new set of movies.
Directed by Travis Knight (who was nominated for an Academy Award for the fantastic 2016 animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings”), the movie is set in 1987. A troubled young girl named Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), discovers a roughed up yellow Volkswagen Beetle at her uncle’s scrap yard. Her uncle gives her at the car as a birthday gift. She happily takes it home and starts tinkering with it. It turns out, of course, that the car was Bumblebee in hiding (voiced by “The Maze Runner” actor Dylan O’Brien), and he reveals himself to Charlie. The two bond and become inseperable. It turns out that Bumblebee has lost his memory.
The film also sets up what is apparently a new origin story set on Cybertron and details how Bumblebee winds up on Earth. He is sent by Optimus Prime (voiced, as always, by Peter Cullen) to Earth to prepare for the arrival of the escaping Autobots after the Decepticons take Cybertron. His original name is B-127; Charlie is one who dubs him Bumblebee. In one of the many nods to the 2007 movie, “Bumblebee” reveals that his voice box was damaged in battle and now must learn to speak using bits of music and radio chatter. Autobot medic Ratchet explained this in the 2007 film, but now viewers can see how all that jazz actually happened.
But the Decepticons continue to hound Bumblebee. Triplechangers Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) arrive on Earth and trick the military to hunt down Bumblebee. Sector-7 Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) leads the humans. Inevitably, Bumblebee’s mission, his returning memory, Charlie’s life and the relentless Decepticon pursuit come to a head.
There is just so much to love about this film. Knight takes the new story by Christine Hodson and knocks it out of the park. Unlike the muddled CGI-fest of the Bayverse films, “Bumblebee” is clear, crisp and perfectly paced, alternating the thrilling transform-and-fight action sequences with the quieter character moments. The film toggles seamless from car chases to comedic pratfalls, from sci-fi spectacle to coming-of-age story. Steinfeld is terrific in this, winning in her openness. John Cena is, well, John Cena, a much funnier movie actor than anyone expected. Bassett takes what could easily have been a one-note voiceover role and makes it her own.
Most surprisingly, the fact that Bumblebee’s face consists of many moving parts (a controversial aspect of the 2007 Transformers) is used to magnificent effect here as, being unable to talk, Bumblebee communicates through robotic facial expressions.
Ultimately, the movie is about a girl and her alien robot, and in that, “Bumblebee” becomes utterly Spielbergian (Steven Spielberg is actually a producer) in its portrayal of the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, recalling everything from 1982’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” to 1999’s “The Iron Giant.” It is touching and makes the film very accessible to audiences of different ages.
“Bumblebee” is a glorious 1980s lovefest. The small details, the general look and the spectacular soundtrack (The Smiths, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Steve Winwood, a-ha and, yes, Rick Astley) ground the story in the era better than any exposition could have.
Along those lines, “Bumblebee” honors the source material. This is a Generation 1 film, so the Autobots and Decepticons look right and even sound right (most notably Soundwave and Shockwave). Every act of transformation is an act of wonder. The first few minutes set on Cybertron are what diehard Transformers fans have been waiting to see on the big screen in live-action since 1984. Eagled-eyed Transformers obsessives will notice all sorts of Easter eggs lovingly hidden in plain sight.
Interestingly, Knight has done what James Wan did with the massively successful “Aquaman” by jettisoning parts of the Bayverse films that he didn’t like. “Bumblebee” ostensibly still serves as the prequel by putting into place important elements that would come into play at the beginning of 2007’s “Transformers.” Yet, Knight has also changed a few things that seem inconsistent with the 2007 film but give “Bumblebee” a more coherent, satisfying quality. Besides, there are 30 years between “Bumblebee” and the 2007 film, so that’s a lot of story the producers can work with. This is an inspiring restart.
The 1986 animated “The Transformers: The Movie” is the touchstone of the original generation of Transformers fans. The 2007 “Transformers” movie introduced the property to a new audience.
With this film, a new “Transformers” film series begins for yet another generation—or it can be argued, for all generations—and Bumblebee is now the best Transformers film ever made, with the littlest Autobot now the biggest of them all.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures Philippines, “Bumblebee” opens on Jan. 8.