I don't think hardly anyone ever expected the Transformers movies to be classics or anything. But whatever one may think of the movies, most people can probably agree that they definitely could've been better than they have been--if they hadn't been directed by Michael Bay for five movies. A visual effect and sound design wizard, but one of the worst action movie directors Hollywood has seen in recent years. People go to Transformers to see robots fight each other, not for the juvenile/crude humor or for poorly written and unappealing *human* characters.
But after the main Transformers movies hit their lowest point yet last year with The Last Knight, the series essentially got shelved. Transformers 6 was taken off the release schedule and never returned. The only problem? The prequel spin-off about Bumblebee was already too far long along in production to stop it, I guess. Regardless, it should've been a sad last gasp for a dead franchise. But it turned out surprisingly good. And not only that, it managed to be better than all of its predecessors (not that doing so was an incredibly difficult feat).
The first good thing about this is that Michael Bay doesn't direct. Instead, he's just the executive producer and he seems pretty limited to just doing the visual/sound effects when needed. In other words--what he should have been limited to doing all along. Instead, Travis Knight directs this film. Unless you watched Kubo and the Two Strings, you've probably never heard of him. But the directorial switch yields an immediate positive effect.
The first 10-15 minutes of this film alone are some of the best in the entire series. Most of it revolves around a battle at Cybertron, which feels more well done than the version we saw at the beginning of Dark of the Moon. We also get to see (temporarily) more Transformers, who have been redesigned to look closer to their original 1980's counterparts--something that will certainly please fans who have watched any Transformers lore beyond the movies. Then there's a battle between Bumblebee and a lone Decepticon on Earth, and it's pretty awesome.
But the general plot set-up of this movie has more in common with E.T. or The Iron Giant. (It also takes place in the 80's--so get ready for a lot of 80's music, including Tears for Fears and a brief Rick Astley moment.) Bumblebee is stuck on Earth, and he gets found by a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who befriends him. Unfortunately, government/army forces (led by John Cena--yup, seriously) are aware of his presence on Earth and intend to find him. And yes, that does sound a bit like the plot of E.T., doesn't it?
This may make it sound like there's still more focus on the humans than is necessary. This is kind of true. The difference here is that (in general) it's actually more well written, and there's more heart to it. The humor is actually humorous this time (mostly). Hailee Steinfeld's character is easily more likable than any human protagonist we've had in this series thus far. There are still a few moments here and there that are just annoying and that we probably could've done without, but the fact that they even got us to really like a human protagonist in a Transformers movie is kind of unprecedented. Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky was at least tolerable, but we still were infinitely more interested in the robots than him. (Probably. If you weren't interested in the robots, then heaven knows why you were watching those movies anyways...)
Regardless, there's still a decent amount of action to go around. Most of it comes at either the beginning or the end, but much of it is still quite fun. The robot fights are a little more fluid than before this time, even relying on martial arts moves. It's also worth noting that there's actually only a few Transformers here with much screen time, which will be easier for casual viewers to keep up with.
Despite all of the improvements, this film still has its issues. It can move a little slowly at times for those wanting more of the robot action, even if the bond between Bumblebee and Charlie actually mostly works. There are some moments that made me roll my eyes--but most of them were just cliched material rather than straight up insulting-the-viewer dialogue (like Bay's installments often had). And the story they're telling has been done before, even if it's an improvement over what we got previously in this franchise. There's also still some moments where you think "Yeah, that definitely should have killed him/her"--usually in the wake of one of the explosions (which are also toned down compared to other installments) or, in one case, a vicious robot punch.
Bumblebee's not a classic or even necessarily great, but it is definitely a huge step in the right direction for this franchise. It gets a lot right of what the main installments in the series got wrong, and it proves it's actually possible to make a good Transformers movie (and not just one that's a guilty pleasure). There's still room for improvement, and who knows where the series will go after this (or if it goes anywhere, depending upon how much money this thing makes). But if they keep Travis Knight or any other properly competent director on board, then I'm all for more.