Lost in Translation has covered The Transformers before, both the G1 cartoon and Michael Bay movie. The quick recap – two factions of giant robots, the Autobots and the Decepticons, from the war-ravaged world Cybertron, arrive on Earth. Both sides need energy, but the Autobots are willing to work with the inhabitants of Earth to get what they need while the Decepticons take it by force. Leading the Autobots is Optimus Prime, usually voiced by Peter Cullen, a wise robot who favours peaceful means but will fight when pushed. The Decepticons are led by Megatron, who rules through force and fear, though he keeps Starscream around anyway. The various Transformers series and movies may or may not tie into the same continuity, so different series can and have played around with canon.
Before getting into Bumblebee, let’s look at Bumblebee, the character. Bumblebee was part of the first line of Transformers sold in toy stores, being available from 1984 until 1986. In the G1 cartoon, he was one of the first Transformers seen on screen, during the Autobot-Decepticon war on Cybertron. Bumblebee was also the first Transformer to meet humans, the Witwickies. Bumblebee is as iconic as Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Starscream.
What makes Bumblebee approachable is that he comes across as being a younger Autobot, relatable to the younger audiences. He’s not that large for a giant robot. His original alternate form was a Volkswagen Beetle, a car whose popularity came from how cute it looked instead of performance. Adding to the innocense of the character, the Beetle was part of the hippie movement and Flower Power in the Sixties. Bumblebee, despite being an Autobot soldier in a war fighting Decepticons, looks innocent and relatable. Perfect for being the first Autobot to meet humans and for being the first Autobot to headline a movie solo.
Bumblebee opens on Cybertron. The Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons. Optimus Prime, once again voiced by Peter Cullen, is sending out scouts to find a location for the Autobots to hide and rebuild. B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth, landing in an military training facility in California of 1987. The soldiers, led by Sector 7 agent Colonel Burns, played by John Cena, chase the Autobot scout. B-127 takes advantage of seeing a Willys Jeep and takes on its form to get some space, only to wind up trapped at a mine. The Autobot does what he can to not hurt the humans.
Unfortunately, B-127 was followed. Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov) has no problems with collateral damage on his mission to find out where Optimus Prime is. During the battle with B-127 and the subsequent interrogation of the Autobot, Blitzwing winds up killing almost all of Burns’ unit, save the Colonel himself. The Autobot manages to destroy Blitzwing, but is unable to speak after the Decepticon destroyed his voice box and is so damaged that even his memory core fails. Before collapsing completely, B-127 sees a Volkswagen Beetle and transforms into the same vehicle.
Elsewhere, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, who played Spider-Gwen in /Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/[http://codex.seventhsanctum.com/2019/01/19/lost-in-translation-279-spider-man-into-the-spider-verse/]) is not having a good life. She has all the angst of a teenager of the late Eighties – bad job, dealing with the clique of Heathers of her school, an annoying younger brother, Otis (Jason Drucker), and a new neighbour, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), who is romantically interested in her – plus she aches over the loss of her father. Her mother, Sally (Pamela Adlon), has remarried to Ron (Stephen Schneider) and has moved on with her life. Charlie, though, can’t.
To feel closer to her late father, Charlie uses the money from her food concession stand job to buy parts she finds at her Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) junk yard to rebuild a classic Corvette. When searching for a key part, she discovers an old yellow Beetle under a tarp. She checks out the car and has one of her rare smiles. Charlie pays for the parts and heads home. The next morning is her eighteenth birthday. Her mother and stepfather give her well-meaning gifts. Still down, Charlie heads to her uncle’s junkyard and pleads with him, offering anything, including cleaning the bathroom there, just to get the Beetle. Hank gives the car to her, not expecting the Beetle to start. Charlie, though, learned mechanics from her father and gets the Beetle home. She also gets the car’s radio going briefly.
B-127’s radio not only gets local stations, it also broadcasts his location. Two Decepticons, Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) pick up the signal while executing an Autobot lieutenant on one of Saturn’s moons. The trace the signal to Earth, the western coast of North America.
She starts to suspect that the Beetle might not be what it looks like when an unusual part drops from the undercarriage. B-127, now having amnesia due to the memory core failure, is as afraid of her as she is of him. The two manage to communicate, the Autobot through body language, and learn about each other. Charlie also gives him a name, Bumblebee, because of his colour and the Beetle’s basic shape. On an outing, they walk into some woods to be alone. Bumblebee shows what happened to his voice box. Charlie does what she can to fix it and repairs a holographic projector and a memory cell. The contents of the cell get projected – the last orders Optimus Prime gave to Bumblebee, protect Earth from the Decepticons.
Shatter and Dropkick arrive on Earth and adopt a new form, cars. It turns out that they are Triple Changers[https://tfwiki.net/wiki/Triple_Changer], picking up a second alternate form, a jet and a helicopter, respectively. They head west, but run into Agent Burns with a lot more backup than before and Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). Powell wants to treat the situation as a first contact moment, negotiating peacefully with the aliens. Burns is more wary, having seen what one can do. Shatter, though, presents herself and Dropkick as emissaries from the Decepticons looking for a renegade who needs to be brought back to Cybertron. While Powell and others at Sector 7 are convinced, Burns shows a bit more genre savviness and points out the name, Decepticons. He’s overruled, though.
Every character has an arc in the movie. Charlie’s is to move on with her life without forgetting her father. Bumblebee’s is to regain his memory and protect Earth. Being voiceless through most of the movie, Bumblebee has to communicate through body language and his eyes. For a non-human CGI character, Bumblebee does this well. The movie is essentially a story about a girl and her car that changes into a robot.
Unlike the previous entries in the live-action Transformers series, the Transformers seen in Bumblebee resemble their G1 cartoon appearances. In particular, Soundwave, Shockwave, and Starscream are easily recognized. Soundwave even sounded like his G1 cartoon counterpart, especially with “Ravage, eject!” And, yes, Ravage went from cassette to robotic jaguar. There’s a number of Easter eggs for fans of the G1 cartoon. Given the Eighties soundtrack, “The Touch” by Stan Bush, featured in the 1986 The Transformers: The Movie did come up.
Bumblebee is also a prequel to the Michael Bay movies. Sector 7 is shown in its early stages. A young Agent Simmons (Nick Pilla) appears in Sector 7’s headquarters. However, familiarity with any other Transformers property isn’t needed to watch the movie. The number of Transformers on screen at any one time is no more than three once off Cybertron. On Cybertron, Optimus Prime is notable, but the others are there to boost the armies on both sides. They’re not important to the story in Bumblebee beyond showing the desperate situation B-127 is leaving. Knowing what’s coming is also not important. While Bumblebee’s voice is damaged, the reason for it is shown on screen. The story uses the damage to help build the relationship between Bee and Charlie. The focus is on those two characters, not the wider context of the cartoon and movies.
While the movie is very much a science fiction action flick, the core of it belongs to the characters Bumblebee and Charlie. While Charlie was created for the movie, Bumblebee wasn’t. The goal, then, is to determine if the character made the translation over. Of course, the various Transformers series and the live-action movies all have differing continuity. It’s a feature, not a bug. It does make judging whether the movie works as an adaptation.
The key part is what was covered about the character of Bumblebee earlier. He is a friendly introduction to the Autobots, close to human size, with a cute exterior that isn’t normally threatening. Throughout Bumblebee, the Autobot took pains to not hurt Charlie or her friends and family on purpose. He went out of his way to warn Agent Burns, trying to protect him from the Decepticons. Bumblebee is a protector, not a destroyer. The only time he was a threat to humans in the movie was when they were a threat to Charlie. Also, throughout his incarnations, Bumblebee is loyal to Optimus. This, too, carries over, even with Optimus on Cybertron. Considering Bumblebee’s amnesia, this core of his personality still survived the memory core failure. From the character perspective, Bumblebee remained true to his previous incarnations.
The loose continuity in Transformers media does complicate matters, but in the movie, Bumblebee has his classic yellow VW Beetle alternate mode. While licensing was an issue with the first live-action movie, this wasn’t a problem for Bumblebee. Using a Beetle allowed the film to have fun with a chase sequence; Beetles weren’t know for being fast, just cute. The use of the Beetle kept the movie light.
Overall, Bumblebee is a good live-action adaptation, fitting in with the continuity of the Bay films while still standing alone. No knowledge of the character is needed, yet the character is true to both his previous appearances in the Michael Bay films and his animated counterparts.