It’s amazing the difference a couple little changes can make. The truth is Bumblebee isn’t that far removed from Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. The plot of this new prequel is almost identical to Bay’s first Transformers: A shy teen wants a car and accidentally stumbles upon one with impressive handling, a talking stereo system, and laser cannons. It’s also got its fair share of Bay-esque wacky comedy sidekicks, evil robots aligned with dopes in the U.S. government, and badass military men with enormous guns. Squint and you could almost mistake it for a Michael Bay movie.

With open eyes, you see how those little changes by director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson make Bumblebee its own, superior thing. Instead of Shia LaBeaouf (and later Mark Wahlberg) the hero is a teenage girl. Instead of Megan Fox (and later Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, et. al.) the women aren’t voluptuous objects (in at least one Bayformers movie several female characters were literal sexbots). Rather than try to aggro up the old cartoon, Bumblebee leans into the nostalgia; the soundtrack is littered with ’80s radio hits and for the first time on the big screen, the Transformers themselves look like they did on the vintage show. Rather than blow up everything in sight for 165 minutes, Knight only blows up select things while telling a sweet coming of age story.

Paramount

Its protagonist is named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). She lives in a coastal town near San Francisco in 1987. In typical Transformers fashion, she had a peculiar combination of skills and hobbies. She’s an Olympic level high driver and also an extremely gifted mechanic. She works at a hot dog stand and loves The Smiths. She’s still having a hard time with the sudden death of her father, and she desperately wants to trade in her motor scooter for a more respectable ride.

She finds Bumblebee in a junkyard, but the audience finds him first; before Knight introduces his human lead he drops the viewers into the middle of an all-out robocalpyse on Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet. With the evil Decepticons near victory, heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, as ever) orders a strategic retreat, and sends Bumblebee as a scout to Earth, hoping this “hidden planet” will serve as a suitable Autobot base of operations.
If you saw Transformers: The Last Knight first of all I’m sorry. Second of all, you know this prequel’s set-up makes no sense within the elaborate continuity explained in that film by a manic Anthony Hopkins. Turns out (at least in the previous movie, but not in this one) that the Transformers have been hiding on Earth since the days of King Arthur and Merlin. They even fought in World War II! Now ... uh, I guess Optimus Prime forgot about all that?
Paramount

The two movies don’t sync up at all, but compared to the unwatchable The Last KnightBumblebee is practically Citizen Kane (SPOILER ALERT: Rosebud was a Transformer), so let’s not nitpick it too much. Thankfully, after Bumblebee’s introduction there’s very little attention paid to the toxic waste dump that is the Transformers’ cinematic continuity. Instead, Knight focuses on Charlie, her family, and her budding relationship with a dorky neighbor (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). And when Knight does bring in the more typical Transformers subplots — like the grim Special Forces soldier (John Cena) who wants to destroy Bumblebee — he fiddles with the standard blueprint, and has Cena deliver a surprising number of deadpan quips.

Paramount

Knight, whose only previous effort as a director was the stop-motion animated film Kubo and the Two Strings, is not the visual stylist that Bay is — and you may briefly miss his involvement during Bumblebee’s action sequences, which are polished but perfunctory. Still, give me 10 polished but perfunctory action sequences if they come in a movie like Bumblebee that has an actual story, palpable stakes, and believable characters, along with some genuinely funny scenes — like the Chaplinesque bit where Bumblebee systematically destroys Charlie’s house by accident. (Yes, I just compared Bumblebee to Chaplin. 2018 has been one hell of a year.)

The whole production just works. Steinfeld, Lendeborg, and Cena are extremely likable leads, and there’s a soul and an innocence to Bumblebee that was never present in any of the previous Transformers. 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.