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Bumblebee: What the critics are saying

The critics have spoken, and they're saying that the Transformers spin-off Bumblebee is, in a word, transformative. 

The first entry in the franchise not to be directed by Michael Bay currently sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, garnering the best reviews by far of any film in the series. Critics were won over by the film's '80s setting, an emphasis on character development absent from the preceding flicks, and an appealing lead performance by the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).

Directed by freshman live-action feature helmer Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) from a script by Christina Hodson (Shut In), the film focuses on Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a troubled teenager who discovers the titular Autobot hiding out in a junkyard in the guise of a 1967 VW Beetle. Sent to establish an outpost on Earth, Bumblebee must enlist the young woman's aid in evading the military while defending the planet from pursuing DecepticonsAlso among the cast are John Cena (Blockers), Pamela Adlon (Louie), and Angela Bassett (Black Panther). 

Bumblebee's critical reception represents one of the most dramatic turnarounds in film history for a franchise, as 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction and 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight both stunk up Rotten Tomatoes with ratings under 20%. We're not going to trash Michael Bay here — there's enough of that going on elsewhere on the internet, and he seems impervious to criticism in any event — but we will go out on a limb and say that the injection of fresh blood may have something to do with Bumblebee's jump in quality.

Clint Worthington of Consequence of Sound would certainly agree with us. "Everything about Bumblebee feels like a fresh start for the franchise," he wrote in his review. "Travis Knight strips down the Transformers aesthetic to something cleaner and more coherent, the robot designs looking more like elevated versions of the old '80s toys than the crumpled tinfoil looks of Bay's designs." He also singled out Steinfeld'd performance, which he called "lovely," and admired the flick's use of its setting: "Imagine Stranger Things if Eleven was a big yellow robot, and you'll have a good idea of how Bumblebee puts nostalgia to effective use," he said.

The Washington Post's Kristen Page-Kirby concurred, saying that the film "tones down everything that made its predecessors weak, while adding humor, emotion and a surprising amount of heart," while making sure to add that "Those who come for the punching will also come away pleased." She also heaped praise upon Steinfeld ("as sharp and funny and awkward as any other '80s teen-movie protagonist"), and also called attention to Bumblebee's character design, which she deemed "so adorable."

Of course, not every notice was so glowing, but even reviewers who stopped short of recommending the film took note of its marked improvement over its predecessors. In a two-star review, Jake Wilson of The Age called Bumblebee "[not] quite the ordeal that might have been feared," while pegging the film as being "[in] the tradition of schmaltzy movies about children befriended by otherworldly beings, which proliferated a generation ago." While noting that "Steinfeld has to carry the film, a challenge she tackles with the awkward sincerity that sets her apart from the average juvenile lead," he came away slightly unimpressed with the flick's attempt to appeal to audiences of all ages. "Even those adults who were once rabid Transformers fans are unlikely to feel more than a mild pang in contemplating what they've left behind," he wrote. "Kids, on the other hand, may well be impatient with all the emotional stuff, and keen to get back to the smashy smashy."

Most observers, however, were taken in by the movie's warm glow of nostalgia and heartfelt coming-of-age story. Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press called the film the "savior" of the Transformers franchise, an antidote to the sensory overload which typified previous entries. "Hard-core fans may be unhappy that there's not enough robot-on-robot violence or turned off by the meet-cute between teen and bot, but hopefully it will attract an audience either tired or turned off by the franchise's past rigidity and addiction to spectacle," he wrote. "This is what we needed: Smaller, quieter, more human and sweeter."

It seems as though the spin-off may just stand as a blueprint for the future of a franchise which for all the world seemed to be winding down. Really, it's not rocket science: a fresh perspective and a genuine investment in character can work wonders for even the most tired properties, and the talented bunch behind Bumblebee seem to have squarely hit the mark, delivering a film which should offer strong competition in a holiday season which looked to be completely dominated by Sony and Marvel's widely acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (in which Steinfeld turned in yet another brilliant performance as breakout character Gwen Stacy, AKA Spider-Gwen). Insider's Kirsten Acuna summed it up succinctly: "Bumblebee isn't just the best Transformers movie Paramount Pictures has made. It's a great movie. Period."