The “Transformers” franchise revs up the engine for the sixth time in eleven years with a movie that feels fresh out of the body shop. Pimping the Ride this time out is director Travis Knight, founder of LAIKA studios and director of the wonderful animated fantasy “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Knight puts his own stamp on it, doing away with most of former franchise mastermind Michael Bay’s bombast in favour of a more humanistic approach.
That’s right, “Bumblebee” is a special effects driven story starring a talking robot car that emphasizes the story’s less mechanical aspects.
The action begins with a battle on Cybertron between the Autobots—the rebellious bots—and the evil Decepticons. To save themselves the Autobots, including scout B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), make a run for it, scattering across the galaxy. “We will fight on,” declares Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), “but we must find safety first.”
B-127 lands on earth, only to be found by a Decepticon operative who disables his vocal processors and damages his memory chip. Beat-up and alone, the robot car hides in open sight at a junkyard as a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. He’s destined for the car crusher until teenager Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) rescues him from rusting away in her uncle’s junkyard, nicknames him Bumblebee and applies some tender loving care to his dented metal and dusty interior. Charlie and her late father were car nuts who spent their time together refurbishing an old Camaro. Since his sudden death she has worn the sadness of her father’s passing like a shroud.
When she switches on the car for the first time she inadvertently sends a signal to the Decepticons setting into motion an invasion of earth. Enter the military who initially co-operate with the Decepticons, hoping to garner some space age technology tips from the alien beings. “He’s a machine,” snarls Agent Burns (John Cena). “He’s more human than you’ll ever be,” replies Charlie.
I wouldn’t call “Bumblebee” restrained by any stretch but it feels positively Bergmen-esque compared to Michael Bay’s five loud ‘n proud instalments. Bay’s “Transformers” left viewers with scorched eyes and ringing ears. “Bumblebee” does have giant action scenes but it doesn’t forget to spend time with Charlie and her family, mom (Pamela Adlon), bratty brother Otis (Jason Drucker), stepfather Roy (Lenny Jacobson) and neighbour Memo (Jorge Lendborg Jr.). The main relationship, however, is between Charlie and a big chunk of metal.
That relationship is the film’s beating heart. “Bumblebee” is not just a tale of good vs. evil; it’s a story of how friendship can mend a broken heart. Set in 1987, this is a throwback to 80s movies like “ET” that paired kids with fantastical creatures with heart warming results. Knight pulls it off, creating a believable relationship between the two. Bumblebee’s eyes—or at least in the blue bulbs that substitute for his eyes—radiate wonder and tenderness. That’s quite a trick to pull off in an action movie.
“Bumblebee” is a welcome change of pace for the “Transformers” series. Knight brings tenderness, humour—“They literally call themselves Decepticons,” says Agent Burns. “How is that NOT a red flag?”—and action that owes more to the style of the 80s era “Transformers” cartoons and Amblin films than Bay’s bombast.