Director: Travis Knight Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Running Time: 114 minutes
For over a decade, the Michael Bay-inflicted Transformers movies have been a force for evil in the film world, a miserable exercise in corporate-asset churnery, a film series propelled by millions of dollars but decimal points of inspiration, a world-view that seemingly looked up to the US military and down on absolutely everyone else. First Shia Labeouf, and later Mark Wahlburg, the eejit ids of everything these films stand for (which is to say, nothing), ran and yelled and gawped through a swampy succession of increasingly convoluted and visually overwhelming CGI, and most any of the many watched it got nothing from it at all except for their hearts to be hardened, left for hours to stew in their own cynicism when faced with stupidity and sneers writ large in IMAX 3D; lazy mean-spiritedness blown up to overwhelming size. Merely not being that makes Bumblebee more than a breath of fresh air. It’s more a vital grasp of any air, wonderful oxygen gulped into screaming, scratched lungs that have been poisoned something noxious. On its own merits though, Bumblebee with its spirit, its optimism, and its creative enthusiasm, storms far, far ahead of everything else in the series so far, less a spin-off than a strike-out, a knock-out blow to its inferior predecessors, floating and stinging like, well you know.
The character of Bumblebee was, in theory at least, always supposed to be the heart of this series, Shia’s loyal sidekick, a cheeky Chappie, not quite as strong as the other Autobots but determined and brave. Unfortunately up to this point the films have been written by particularly incompetent monkeys with typewriters so none of that has really come across. The yellow bot’s solo outing on the other hand, has a talented screenwriter who lays a great foundation for a simple, accessible story that that gets the basics right, keeping dull lore and dumb jokes at Bay. Writer Christina Hodson has said that she has drawn from her family’s own personal experiences to give Bumblebee its emotional centre, the walking Volkswagen finds itself jettisoned from the perrenial robot war and into 80s America and the life of Charlie, a car-mad teenager trying to cope with the loss of her dad. Charlie is played by Hailee Steinfeld, who provides a similar level of relateable young-weariness that she did in the undeservedly underseen The Edge of Seventeen.
Charlie is sullen and withdrawn, but understandably so, considering her father’s death, her struggle to fit in with the new family her mam has put together, her crappy job at Hotdog on a Stick and her snippy classmates. With so much going on, its no surprise that she doesn’t have time to notice dopey, infatuated neighbour Memo, and life becomes even more complicated for Charlie when the Beetle she gets from the local scrapyard for her 18th birthday turns out to be a lost robot from outer space. Bumblebee, rendered voiceless after a Decepticon attack, damaged, lost and innocent is part ET, part teen hearthrob (even voiced in the film’s opening by Teen Wolf‘s Dylan O’Brien), resulting in a story much more grounded and personal in its stakes. A mechanic and an emotional support bot building each other back up, they make their way charmingly through a series of teen comedy scenes, with Memo along for the ride before too long. It’s still an action blockbuster, but director Travis Knight knows plenty about how to build up a connection to characters and how best to manage time from his work with Laika Animation, and from Hodson’s script and some strong acting performances he builds up Charlie and friends into people (and robots) worth investing in. It says a lot about how this film diverts from the other Transformers movies in how the possibility of big action scenes and military presence is literally the threat of the film, with two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux!) manipulating the mistrust of American army boys, John Cena among them. Cena here adds to his growing list of solid performances, adding a hefty drop of nonsense to his no-nonsense soldier (he asks the pressing question of why they should trust a group who call themselves “Decepticons”).
The action, when it does happen, is snappy, engaging and easy to follow. The key with movies like this is never “no action” or “no CGI”, it’s always a simple matter (easy to say when you’re not the one animating it I suppose) of understanding what the characters on screen want to do, how they’re doing it, and where they are on screen. Though the designs of the bots aren’t a total overhaul here, the colours are clearer, the movements less jerky, and Knight is leagues above in storytelling terms, so the robot fights are welcome treats sprinkled throughout the story. Bumblebee doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it dresses it up (in disguise) with an effective refocus, resulting in a film the whole family can genuinely enjoy. Against all odds, the Transformers off-shoot is one of the highlights of the holiday season. Grouded, well-rounded, sweet and fun, Bumblebee is well worth a watch before the year is out.(4 / 5)