UK Release Date: 26th December 2018
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: David Magee
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, John Cena, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Dylan O’Brien, Peter Cullen
Synopsis: When war forces him to Earth from his home planet, the titular Autobot finds himself bonding with a human teenager in the 1980s as Decepticon troops close in on him.
The release of a new Transformers film has, traditionally, inspired feelings of dread in film fans and critics. Michael Bay has spent the last decade turning Hasbro’s beloved toy line into the centrepiece of five increasingly incoherent blockbusters, featuring horrific misogyny, inappropriate stereotypes and action so noisy that it can induce temporary insanity in anyone who watches it. With the franchise seemingly running its course, Bay has now stepped aside in favour of Laika animator and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight for Bumblebee. It’s a movie that takes Transformers back to basics, with charming results.
We open with the war on Cybertron, in conflict scenes that feel like an homage to the 1980s animation The Transformers: The Movie rather than the Bay blueprint. Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien, when he does speak) escapes under the orders of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and takes refuge on Earth, using the form of a yellow VW Beetle. Some time later, the Beetle falls into the hands of car-obsessed teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who gets more than she bargained for when the car transforms into a robot that, fortunately, is exactly the same height as her garage.
This proves to be the trigger for some scenes of genuinely heart-warming bonding between the duo. Knight has a gift for these comedic sequences, using Bee’s failed speech systems as a vehicle for some great silent slapstick as he blunders around Charlie’s family home while everybody is out. It’s all made even warmer by the deployment of some hardcore 1980s homage, from the soundtrack to the pop culture references. Bumblebee loves The Breakfast Club and a-ha, but hates The Smiths, which makes him a bot after my own heart.
This is still an action movie, however, and it’s one with a bit of edge. The PG certificate doesn’t preclude robots being bisected with swords or human beings suffering instant vapourisation into a puddle of viscous gloop. Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux are convincingly menacing as a duo of Decepticons on Bee’s trail, while John Cena also proves to be a thorn in the heroes’ side as a military man who joins forces with the Decepticons when they declare that Bee is an alien fugitive. Cena provides many of the film’s comic highlights, delivering one-liners and doing his military shtick in the perfect midpoint between his old school work in films like The Marine and his new comedy kingpin stuff in Trainwreck and Blockers.
Bumblebee is, in that sense, a consistently enjoyable and funny movie. Unlike the Bay films, it derives its comedy from the warm relationship between Steinfeld – as delightful and charming as she has ever been on screen – and Bee, rather than lewd gags and puerile toilet comedy. It’s also more than willing to giggle at its own absurdity, with one character quipping that “they literally call themselves Decepticons”, when the eventual robot-human betrayal takes place.
Steinfeld deserves added praise for delivering an intelligent and nuanced portrayal of a role that could easily have been a cliché. She’s relatable and headstrong, with a desire to escape her small town, without being a ‘strong woman’ or tomboy stereotype. In an early scene that feels like a pointed nod to very modern misogyny, she delivers a hilariously withering look to her stepdad when she’s gifted a book encouraging her to smile more. This nuance also comes through in her relationship with lovestruck pal Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), which is sweet while remaining mostly platonic and subverting the ‘get the girl’ trope.
It’s just pleasant to be able to sit down for a Transformers film that understands its core audience. These movies shouldn’t be a musclebound mega-franchise for basement-dwelling teenage boys. They should cater to the kids who think giant robots fighting each other is really cool. Those kids will love Bumblebee, which provides plenty of metal-on-metal mayhem while also never losing sight of the characters at its heart. This isn’t just a tolerable Transformers movie; it’s a downright great one.
Pop or Poop?
This is definitely the warmest and most charming toy advert I have ever had the pleasure to watch.
Bumblebee is one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of the year, making the most of an excellent cast to turn the Transformers into a movie ensemble I actually want to spend more time around. Hailee Steinfeld immediately eclipses the LaBeoufs and Wahlbergs of the world as a sensitive companion for a seriously lovable machine.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.