Review: “Bumblebee”

4 out of 5 stars.

I never thought I’d willingly watch another “Transformers” movie, much less enjoy it.  But that’s exactly what happened with “Bumblebee,” an attempt to reset the franchise based on the popular 80s toy line by bringing the story back to the beginning.  While it has all the action and special effects you’d expect from a “Transformers” film, it also has a genuine sincerity that is missing from the other movies in the series.

The year is 1987.  The film opens with a busy action scene that’s typical of the franchise, as the Autobots battle the Decepticons on their planet Cybertron.  As they are losing the battle, Optimus Prime sends the Autobot B-127 (voiced by Dylan O-Brien) to Earth to set up a new base of operations for them.  B-127 is pursued by a Decepticon, who he manages to destroy but not before losing his voicebox and suffering severe damage to his memory core.  The yellow robot manages to transform into a yellow VW bug before shutting down.

Bumblebee sits in Charlie’s (Hailee Steinfeld) garage in his car form.

Some time later, a California teen named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the VW bug in a local scrap yard.  Handy with mechanics, Charlie is able to get the old car started, but in the process wakes up B-127, who she nicknames Bumblebee.  Charlie quickly forms a bond with Bumblebee, and this is where the film excels, as it puts the characters before the action.  Charlie is still grieving the sudden death of her father, feeling left out as the rest of her family (her younger brother and her mother, who has remarried) has seemingly moved on.  She has given up hobbies, and struggles to fit in with her peers.  This is the first “Transformers” film not directed by Michael Bay, who only serves as producer.  Instead, Travis Knight of “Kubo and the Two Strings” takes over, and his grasp of character development and the grieving process, especially when it comes to young people, serves the story well here.  Steinfeld’s solid performance contributes to this, as does the humanizing of Bumblebee, who, despite being a robot, and despite the fact that he can only talk through a car radio, is incredibly endearing.  Even the cold blue lights of his eyes manage to be expressive and warm.

Little does Charlie know that Bumblebee is being pursued by a government agency that includes lieutenant Jack Burns (John Cena, playing the stereotypical tough military figure), who saw Bumblebee make his initial contact on Earth and believes him to have bad intentions.  There’s also a pair of Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) who trace B’s homing signal to California when Charlie inadvertently reactivates it.  Along with her new friend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Charlie tries to protect Bumblebee at all costs, while also reconciling her grief.  While the film does become more action-heavy toward the conclusion, it never reaches the massive (and monotonous) scale of the previous “Transformers” movies.  Here, the action is choreographed well and is easy to follow.

“Bumblebee” doesn’t give audiences anything new.  With its barrage of 80s tunes and John Huges-esque feel it certainly goes overboard trying to create that nostalgic feeling, while the story follows along the same lines as “E.T.” or “The Iron Giant” or countless other child and creature stories.  But it’s fun, funny, and, most surprisingly heart-warming.  It’s the sort of film that longtime fans of “Transformers” have likely wanted all along, setting up a promising future for a franchise that no one thought could be dragged out any further.

Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13. 

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