After five films ranging from sub-adequate to freakishly bad, the idea that all it would take to make a satisfactory Transformers film would be to have 1) a prequel, 2) centered around one of the dullest characters in the franchise is ludicrous on its face. And yet here we are with Bumblebee, which manages not only the relatively insignificant feat of being the best Transformers movie, but more impressively, of being a Transformers film that's actually fun to watch. Mostly fun to watch, at any rate. Truth be told, this feels more like the entertaining but forgettable baseline for a franchise to grow out of, rather than a high-water mark.

The film takes place in 1987 and is indecently excited by that fact. The soundtrack is larded up with 30-second snippets of what feels like a couple hundred songs that mostly feel like what a social misfit with mildly sophisticated tastes would be listening to, and given that the main character is just such a misfit, I guess mission accomplished. But it's wearying to try and survive the sheer onslaught of "Hey! The '80s! Hey! The '80s!" that keeps blaring out of the speakers, and parading in front of the camera in the form of cars, clothes, make-up, design, and props (a Rubik's Cube tumbles through one frame for absolutely no reason other than to make sure that a Rubik's Cube makes it into the movie). It feels less like place-setting than making a nostalgic fetish object, and while of course a tremendously large percentage of blockbuster filmmaking in the 2010s is exactly about making nostalgic fetish objects, Bumblebee is unusually pathetic about it.

But anyway, I claimed the film was good, so I should probably get on about that. Here in !!1987!!, the war between the good Autobots, a race of alien robots who transform into cars, and the evil Decepticons, a race of alien robots who transform into planes, is turning against the Autobots. In desperation, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is sending his most trusted soldiers to every corners of the galaxy for safety and to find a new base for the Autobot resistence, and the small but indefatigable B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) he assigns the special task of traveling to the very likely planet Earth. Here, it is the 18th birthday of one Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), who has lately become a sullen, rebellious teen, enraged at the world for taking away her father, with whom she spent many a fine day restoring an old car. Now she futilely works on it herself, as a way of asserting her independence from her mom (Pamela Adlon), stepdad (Stephen Schneider), and younger brother (Jason Drucker).

These two plots converge in almost exactly the same way they did in the first Transformers back in 2007: B-127, having been attacked by Decepticons, chased by the U.S. military, and stripped of his voice synthesizer, ends up comatose in the form of a Volkswagen Beetle in the junkyard where Charlie gets her part, and the crusty old junkyard owner Hank (Len Cariou) proves to be not so crusty by giving her the battered-up thing for free. In hardly any time, she's met the nervous, isolated Transformer, whose memory circuits are offline, and given him the new name Bumblebee, and together they have many adventures.

It is possibly not a good sign that this is easily at its best when it's just the laconic story of a stubborn teenager and her robot pal, hanging out in central coastal California, and it gets pretty droning and dull when it becomes the story about giant shape-shifting robots blasting each other with ray guns. Because that happens, of course; Charlie accidentally triggers Bumblebee's homing beacon, which brings a pair of nondescript Decepticons that have somehow landed Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux to do their voice work. They team up with the military, over the objections of sensible xenophobe Colonel Burns (John Cena), who has the good sense to mention the only thing I've ever wanted a human character to say in any one of these movies: "But they call themselves Decepticons." And it of course falls to Bumblebee, Charlie, and lovestruck idiot Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) to save the day.

This is all a bit irritating, given that what the film does best is to hone in on the friendship between the girl and and the Autobot. It's actually quite sweet: Steinfeld is by leaps and bounds the most satisfactory lead actor any of these films have ever had, bringing a mild vulnerability under the snappish hard edges that's miles more appealing and sympathetic than Shia LaBeouf's hapless bumblefuck nebbish, or whatever in God's name Mark Wahlberg was on about. And Bumblebee himself is a marvelous leap forward for the series. Not only do we have, for the first time, a Transformer character who moves slowly enough that we can attend to how he looks like a physically plausible machine and not a sculpture made of metal filings, he also benefits from some really smart character animation. I take this to be the influence of director Travis Knight, who has never worked in live action before: he directed Laika's masterpiece Kubo and the Two Strings, and has served as animator on every film released by that studio (which is owned by his dad, though he's got the talent for it not be solely nepotism). Presumably that's informed the gentle pantomime of Bumblebee's performance, a clumsy silent clown with childlike fascination who feels very much drawn from the Charles Chaplin tradition. It is, I dare say, a heartfelt performance, and between the human Steinfeld and the terrifically CGI effect (it is, I believe, Steinfeld's first time with a virtual co-star, and she sells the hell out of it), Bumblebee is, God help me, charming. It is sentimental. It is warm.

It is a fucking Transformers movie, which means that the center eventually cannot hold, but somehow, scaling way back to be just a simple character piece on the ancient "boy and his dog" model feels exactly right for this universe. Turning this all into a more-or-less explicit children's movie was exactly the right choice, and the film reintroduces Transformers material judiciously enough that it doesn't break the movie. The slower pace even has the admirable effect of making this the first time in six movies wherein we can clearly understand the process by which the giant robot transforms into a car, an effect trotted out in setpiece and in lightly comic character moments both. So it's not just better as a movie than any of the previous Transformers pictures; it's better at Transformersing, too. None of this is really memorable (its greatest strengths are generic clichรฉs), and the best thing about the film is that it somehow manages not to fuck up things that shouldn't have been fucked up in the first place. But it does have a pretty nice mixture of simplicity and bombast, and it foregrounds character relationships more than just about any other effects-driven popcorn movie of the year. So even if there's not much to it, what's there is perfectly nice.

Reviews in this series,
Transformers (Bay, 2007)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Bay, 2009)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011)
Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay, 2014)
Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay, 2017)
Bumblebee (Knight, 2018)