Bumblebee is about the closest I imagine we will ever get to a good Transformers movie-which isn't saying much considering what a slog the previous entries in the multi-billion franchise have been. Part of the film's enjoyment is undeniably linked to the absence of Michael Bay, who has helmed all five of the increasingly bloated and incoherent franchise installments starting with 2007's Transformers, but here steps back into the role of producer, handing the reins over to Travis Knight, an animator who made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). The film also benefits from a genuine female presence on screen, rather than just male-generated eye candy, which is undoubtedly the direct result of the script being written by Christina Hodson, the first non-male screenwriter in the franchise's history who has spoken directly in interviews about writing the film as what she, as an adolescent girl, wanted to see in movies. Other improvements include a reasonable running time of under two hours (Bay's Transformers movies averaged well over two and a half hours) and a setting in the late 1980s, which justifies all manner of '80s pop and rock on the soundtrack and also helps align the movie's look and feel to the Spielberg-produced Amblin movies of that decade.
Of course, Bumblebee is still a Transformers movie, which means there are many scenes of giant transforming robots slugging it out both on Earth and on the distant planet of Cybertron. Thankfully, though, these sequences are less frequent and more coherent than in Bay's movies, which leaves substantially more time for character interaction and development within the story's coming-of-age framework. The movie's central relationship is between Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old gearhead outsider with soft eyes and a gentle disposition who is struggling to find her identity after the death of her father, and the titular Transformer, a bright yellow alien robot who comes into Charlie's possession when she thinks she is buying an old VW Beetle. B-127, who is rechristened "Bumblebee" by Charlie, has been sent to Earth on a mission by Autobot leader Optimus Prime, who we see doing battle back on Cybertron from time to time. He is pursued by a pair of villainous Decepticons, who convince the U.S. government to help them track him using their communication systems (the one dissenter is Agent Burns, a square-jawed soldier played to humorous effect by John Cena).
Bay's Transformers movies always felt like they were desperate in trying to weave together some kind of epic mythology, and they always collapsed from the weight of their own bloat and visual tedium. Knight keeps Bumblebee pleasurably scaled back, drawing bits and pieces from the franchise universe, but relying heavily on '80s nostalgia (lots of Breakfast Club references and Smiths music) and the central relationship between Charlie, who is essentially orphaned (her mother and her stepfather are well-meaning, but clueless), and Bumblebee, who has lost his memory and is rendered unable to talk for most of the movie, so must communicate with body language and his glowing blue eyes (at times he is reminiscent of WALL-E). Their relationship is light and funny, but it also has a degree of emotional depth that is surprisingly effective. We've become so inured to the idea of just being run over by a Transformers movie that it feels downright revelatory to see one that works as something other than overkill.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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