“Lack of racial diversity in Bumblebee is tempered by a complex female lead, with the end result of a rockin’ movie guaranteed to make your Millennial soul soar.”
Director: Travis Knight 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Christina Hodson 👩🏽🇬🇧🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Upon its release, rave reviews have tumbled through my Twitter feed for Bumblebee, the latest Transformers movie. Still, I remained skeptical. After all, I'd seen the first reboot back in 2007, figured the Michael Bay explosives weren’t for me, and didn't bother with the second. Or third. Or fourth, or fifth...you see what I’m getting at.
Yet the weeks passed and adulation for Travis Knight’s movie—his latest since a fantastic debut with Kubo and the Two Strings in 2016—had hardly abated. Finally, I found a quiet evening and caught the film for myself.
Would you know it, now I’m one of the converted! It’s my turn to flood your dash with affection for this earnest, sweet, and heartfelt movie, and to laud its rockin’ soundtrack full of high-profile singles guaranteed to make your Millennial soul soar. Tears for Fears, The Smiths, Simple Minds—be still, my synth-pop heart!
From opening scene to credits, that old movie magic courses through Bumblebee’s robotic veins. The young lead, its late ‘80s setting, and a pair of parents who just don’t get it smacked of a classic Spielbergian setup. But instead of casting yet another white male lead, a habit Spielberg himself has been reluctant to kick if Ready Player One (2018) or The Post (2017) are any indication, Bumblebee’s protagonist Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) provides a much-needed jolt to the scrap heap of a classic, but creatively defunct franchise.
For the first time in over a decade, I'm unearthing latent, positive feelings for the Transformers franchise, which lives in my childhood memories as a beloved cartoon and kick-ass toy line. Nostalgia isn’t always so bad, when produced this well and updated for modern audiences.
Bumblebee only works so well because of Charlie. She fits neatly into the tried-and-true archetype of a hero—hampered by past traumas and misunderstood by the world. But the formula comes to life through seamless acting and relatable dialogue. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?
Besides, Charlie hurdles past gender stereotypes and becomes realized as a three-dimensional lead, which gives her character the layers any protagonist needs. She’s angsty, but sympathetic; her relationship with her mother is a little complicated, neither perfect nor antagonistic; and she loves her kid brother, even if she's jealous of his apparent ability to move on from their father’s death. Best of all, she doesn't need a romance to drive her narrative forward.
I only wish she could have shared some of this wonderful depth with another female character. The other women of Bumblebee feel uninspired, such as the cookie-cutter Mean Girls who bully Charlie.
The supporting men feel more thoughtful than their female counterparts, and they hold significant narrative space. The Transformer Bumblebee (Dylan O'Brien) shares the spotlight with his human friend, complete with backstory and plot development . Meanwhile, Charlie's emotional arc begins and ends with the reconciliation of her beloved father’s death. And for a sidekick, she gets a boy who has a massive crush on her, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).
As with so many films that feature leading women, such as last year’s Tomb Raider (2018) or even Wonder Woman (2017), Charlie might be a strong lead but she feels isolated in a predominantly male cast.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 10% of key cast and crew members were POC.
For a film set in the Bay Area, in the fictional city of Brighton Falls filmed in Santa Cruz, CA, Bumblebee fails egregiously in representing the diversity of this region. Even for the time period, a look at the 1990 U.S. Census shows that 1 in 5 residents in Santa Cruz were people of color, most likely Hispanic. But you would never guess from watching Bumblebee.
Of course, the film does include a token POC. (This wouldn’t be properly Spielbergian without a token POC, I suppose). I wish I didn't have to call him that, but Memo, played by Lendeborg Jr. who is Dominican, holds the lonesome title of being only character of color with any kind of significance. The filmmakers could have at least shown his parents, who live next door to Charlie. Alas, the only shots we see of Memo’s inner world occur in his bedroom, endearingly plastered with nerdy space posters. But even then we’re only there to progress the storyline of the white lead, rather than to deepen Memo’s character.
Finally, in minor roles we only see a Mean Girl—literally, her film credit is titled “Mean Girlfriend”—played by Mika Kubo of Japanese descent. She gets one line, maybe two. Besides her, the world of Bumblebee is vastly overrepresented with background white characters.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.58/5
I said it up top and I'll say it again: Bumblebee feels absolutely Spielbergian, for better and for worse. On the plus side, Knight’s movie harbors a cinematic heartbeat that draws on classic tenets of storytelling. But with it comes a lazy assumption that people in the ‘80s were really, really white. For Santa Cruz, CA, this isn’t even close to true.
Thankfully, this exclusion is tempered by a complex female lead, perhaps aided by the fact of having a woman—Christina Hodson—behind the story and screenplay. The end result left me happy to sit back and adore Bumblebee’s sheer ability to entertain. So here’s to hoping we see Transformers continue in this fresh direction. Having grossed over $440 million worldwide so far, against a production budget of $135 million, I can only hope producers are feeling good about the film’s earnings and are planning big things for the future.