In a 1789 letter, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And for a decade, you could add “critical drubbings of the new ‘Transformers’ film” to that list of life’s ironclad certainties. Despite incredible success at the box office, not a single one of the five Michael Bay-directed blockbusters secured a fresh rating on critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, with the franchise bottoming out with a 15 percent freshness rating for 2017’s Mark Wahlberg-led “Transformers: The Last Knight.”
“Bumblebee,” a prequel that swaps out Wahlberg for another Massachusetts-born action star in West Newbury native John Cena and director Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) for Bay, looks to be the exception to the rule. The film, which opens Thursday evening, had a 94 percent Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating at the time of this article’s publication, an astounding turnaround.
The bigger question for studio executives is whether the positive critical buzz will be accompanied by a sizable box office haul. “The Last Knight” earned half a billion dollars less than its predecessor, 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” and clearly Paramount Pictures would like to reverse that trend.
Given the competition “Bumblebee” faces from recent superhero films “Aquaman” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” as well as family-friendly newcomer “Mary Poppins Returns,” box office analysts only expect the film to earn somewhere around $26 million in its opening weekend. However, for legions of movie-watchers who previously gave up on the franchise, “Bumblebee” could change their minds for future films in the series.
Here’s what critics are saying about “Bumblebee.”
The headline of Glenn Kenny’s New York Times review aptly sums up his thoughts: “Finally, a ‘Transformers’ Movie That’s Actually Good.”
Can a “Transformers” movie be good? It turns out the answer is yes — if the right talent is given enough leeway. The latest, “Bumblebee,” is the sixth in the franchise. As directed by Travis Knight, an animator who made his directorial debut with the striking 2016 animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Bumblebee” is cleverly plotted, neatly allusive and has dialogue you can envision real people and, um, real Transformers speaking.
Kristen Page-Kirby of The Washington Post said that “Bumblebee” tones down the aspects that made the other “Transformers” films falter, while adding “a surprising amount of heart” in the form of teenage protagonist Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld).
In the end, “Bumblebee” is less a movie about giant robot aliens punching each other than it is a story about friendship. Charlie finds a way to cope with her grief. And Bumblebee finds a way to grow into someone who learns to cope with a world where he’s not welcome. Underneath the metal veneer, there is a genuinely touching story of two friends who help one another along a road that, in the beginning, neither of them thought they could walk. Or drive.
Mara Reinstein of US Weekly wrote that the film is not only a fun nostalgia trip for fans of ’80s classics like “ET,” but that it’s also the best “Transformers” film by far because it actually cares about the humans involved in the film.
“Bumblebee” works because it dares to tap into a new dimension in this franchise: Legitimate emotional reactions. We humans like to refer to them as feelings!
Justin Lowe of The Hollywood Reporter credited screenwriter Christina Hodson with successfully “play[ing] directly to the franchise’s roots.”
Skillfully shaping what’s essentially a coming-of-age story for both Charlie and Bumblebee, Hodson layers in a sense of wonder and discovery that effectively recaptures the innovation and energy of the 2007 original. It’s an effective reimagining that also bears a knowing resemblance to classic youth-oriented films from Bumblebee executive producer Steven Spielberg.
In his mostly positive review for Vulture, Bilge Ebiri acknowledged that the film’s quieter, more human tone is probably necessary, but ended the review questioning whether audiences may pine for the explosions and robot battles.
…at a couple of points I found myself slightly missing the gonzo, go-for-broke bravado of those earlier pictures. That is perhaps the contradiction at the heart of Bumblebee: Its restraint feels like a necessary corrective to the earlier movies’ gargantuosity, but in the end, we’re all still here for the exploding, fighting robots.
Like many of his critic peers, Screencrush’s Matt Singer ultimately conceded that “Bumblebee” is far from a perfect movie, but it blows away everything else in the series in terms of quality.
Bumblebee’s not a first-class blockbuster — it spends its entire runtime evading the trappings of a giant action movie only to transform into one in the third act — but to say a few key changes to the Transformula make it the best movie in this franchise is the understatement of several centuries.
Writing for The Seattle Times, Soren Andersen said that despite Paramount trying to cast “Bumblebee” as different from the other “Transformers” films by touting Steinfeld’s lead role and Knight’s directing, it’s basically the same as the rest of the series.
This one is different, the makers will have you know. Unlike all the earlier ones, Michael Bay — the original Mr. BoomBoom — didn’t direct it. Travis Knight got the nod. “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “The Boxtrolls,” intelligently made stop-motion-animated young people’s movies, are on his résumé. Reason for hope there. Sigh. For his live-action debut, Knight slips into Bay boomboom mode. Well, Bay produced the picture, so what did we expect?