BumblebeeReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/28/18 11:44:18
Having bailed on the live-action "Transformers" movies after the first because it was just not my thing despite my 1980s fandom a few neat sequences, I can't describe "Bumblebee" as the best of the lot with particular authority, but I wouldn't be surprised: It scores more direct hits on its nostalgia targets while just being generally less of a mess and friendlier than Michael Bay's work, and it probably doesn't hurt to step back and do something simpler rather than trying to go bigger every few years. It's maybe not the best possible movie you could get from a studio trying to squeeze a little more out of a series based upon a 30-odd-year-old line of toys, but it's impressively competent and charming, which is not a bad way for a franchise with impressive box office but a bad reputation looking for a new direction to go.It kicks off with a giant battle between sentient robots on their home planet of Cybertron; with the planet about to fall completely to the cruel Decepticons, heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) dispatches his troops to new planets to search for a hiding place where they can regroup, with small but brave B-127 (voice of Dylan O'Brien) sent to "Earth". Things go wrong right away as he is targeted by both a Decepticon assassin and a group of U.S. special forces, and escapes with his memory damaged, camouflaged as a Volkswagen Beetle. That's how Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds him at a scrapyard on her eighteenth birthday, and when he revives in front of her they - and Charlie's neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) form a bond. "Bumblebee" awakening alerts a pair of Decepticons on one of Saturn's moons, though, and soon Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux) have arrived on Earth and convinced a "Section 7" scientist (John Ortiz) that the Autobot is a dangerous fugitive, though his colleague Burns (John Cena) is less likely to take them at their word.
This is all going down in 1987, and the opening sequence on Cybertron is pure pandering to the adults in the audience who were watching the Transformers TV show and reading the comics at the time. As one of those people, I am not going to pretend that I don't appreciate the heck out of it; director Travis Knight and the visual-effects crew pull out the "Generation One" designs and polish them up nice, but it's also worth noting that Knight's stop-motion animation background is a big help during this all-CGI sequence: There's a lot happening on-screen but it's always just short of visual overload, with the FX/stereo guys crew doing a good job of creating a bit more depth when the film is seen in 3D, which is especially helpful in a movie like this where the relative sizes of various things flying through the air may not be obvious. It's solid, clear action staging that continues when Bumblebee and his pursuers reach Earth and less of the movie is being rendered on a computer.
Once the movie makes Earthfall, it starts to get a bit familiar: There's the pursuing government agency as inclined to distrust the Autobots as the Decepticons, the teenager who badly wants a car and discovers that the junker she's fixing up is something special, and the chaos that ensues as ten-foot-tall robots with the mass of an automobile try to stay hidden inside a suburban house, with the latter seeming especially rehashed from the previous film(s); the transforming sequences and robot forms also take on a bit of the weakness of the Bay films, with all the fiddly little bits of detail distracting from the closer-to-G1 designs and bigger pictures. Knight and writer Christina Hodson often appear to have a little trouble figuring out just how seriously to take all this, although it's hard to blame them for that, as many pieces of this franchise built to entertain 10-year-olds are kind of silly at their heart and become more so when a character mentions that the bad guys they're trusting are literally called "Decepticons" and well-realized teens are placed next to rigid, unnecessarily hostile military types. As much as Bumblebee is clearly an attempt to step back from the series's worst excesses, it can't completely escape the template that Bay set down.
And yet, the parts that the filmmakers get right are genuinely impressive, with the best decision being to hire Hailee Steinfeld to play Charlie and giving her a character worth playing. Charlie is mourning the death of her father and frustrated by the extent to which her family seems to be moving on ahead of her while at the same time finding something that makes her feel special, and she's great at attacking these things both directly or from the side, which doesn't just make Charlie seem more real but makes some of the more arbitrary parts of the script work better than they should. She's paired with some good folks as Charlie's family, and has an especially nice chemistry with Jorge Lendeborg, with his Memo pleasantly nerdy and impressed enough with Charlie to make a good sidekick. Interestingly, there's a similar sort of smart-lady/respectful-guy thing with the villains, with Justin Theroux giving voice to a dim psychopath and Angela Bassett a big part of why Shatter seems a commanding field leader.
The title character himself seems to be where the filmmakers have the most problems, and that's kind of predictable - he's the one most boxed-in by later movies, to the point where one may wish that Paramount was doing a full reboot rather than a prequel. He's potentially got as dramatic a story as Charlie, in that it wouldn't be hard to see his lost memory, inability to speak, and instinctive shift into a battle mode as suggesting a soldier with PTSD (it almost has to be what Hodson was going for), but all too often this comes across as slapstick. It works best when Steinfeld is there, both because she's good enough to show that Charlie understands what Bumblebee is going through and because it gives the animators something for the robot to reflect.On the other hand, is it really a good idea for a movie based on kids' toys to actually get that serious? Probably not, no matter how much guys in their mid-forties who liked these things decades ago might appreciate that. "Bumblebee" may not hit a perfect balance between maturity and the concept's inherent silliness, but it comes close enough to something that may actually be impossible, and on the whole it probably works better than one has any right to expect.
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