Directed by Travis Knight
Written by Christina Hodson based on “Transformers” by Hasbro
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendenborg, Jr, John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon
Perhaps I’m dating myself just a bit, I was a kid during “The Transformers” run on television. I cheered when an animated film made it to theaters. I had the toys too. Somehow as I got older, I lost touch with my “Transformers” past. I suppose that happens to every person as they grow older, remembering fond aspects of their childhood, but putting them away to become more responsible.
Of course, this didn’t stop Michael Bay from reimagining the franchise with big, bombastic action-adventure films. The adult in me didn’t really want to sit through a modern, CGI-enhanced rendition of his childhood. I relented for the first three films and then completely gave up on the later entries.
Why, then, did I actively seek out the latest spinoff, “Bumblebee” which hits theaters this weekend?
Most importantly, it was because I have a 12-year-old nephew who’s still at that age where he can appreciate the film for what it is, much like I appreciated the cartoon when I was his age. In that, I get to live vicariously through him.
In that same stretch, Christina Hodson’s story allowed me to vicariously live through the late 1980’s setting of the film. Some have equated the story to “The Iron Giant” and Steven Spielberg’s eponymous “E. T.”, which I agree with. (Mr. Spielberg was an executive producer on this film.)
Those equations are not wrong. Everything that made the prototypical 1980’s fantasy film successful is here. Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie Watson, a social outcast from both her family and from society. She has a supportive family, but the one, key figure in her life is missing. We know she has potential, but the hole in her life has her wandering aimlessly. That is until Bumblebee comes into her life.
Bumblebee, which is introduced to us in a fairly provocative standoff, is rendered mute. Before I move forward, I suppose I should share that a war has broken out between the Decepticons and the Autobots on Cybertron. If this seems like gobble-de-gook, it’s because it is. Fortunately, for the story we don’t spend too much time involved in the overall Transformers lore. In fact, director Travis Knight steers us clear of most of that, in part because we’ve seen it in the past five movies. More importantly, it allows us to enjoy a single character and their defining moment.
Sent as a sentry to protect Earth and to prepare for the coming war, Bumblebee (voice by Dylan O’Brien) is just a cool, emoting character. Here, he communicates more though motion than through voice, though a really strong connection is formed when Charlie realizes that he is teaching himself to learn English so that he can communicate.
On the flip side is the all-encompassing military story. The Army happened to be in the right place at the right time when Bumblebee first arrives and now Jack Burns (John Cena) wants it as does Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). And, this wouldn’t be a “Transformers” movie without some sort of Decepticon resistance, compliments of Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov), Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux.)
In spite of Bumblebee, Charlie’s family and friends are pretty cool, if rote characters. Pamela Adlon plays her mom, Sally. She’s the typical mom of the 80’s, overworked and caring. There is an emotional disconnect between mother and daughter that plays nicely as we get further into the story. The geekly brother, this time Otis (Jason Drucker) is fun, but really doesn’t come into his own until the third act. Stephen Schneider plays Ron, Charlie’s stepfather. He tries to help in that condescending 1980’s way. It is awkward to see it portrayed today, but it also rivals the best of that same type of character from the past.
Jorge Lendenborg, Jr (“Love, Simon,” the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel”) plays Memo. He has a lot of feelings for Charlie and he just doesn’t know how to connect with her. It makes for a playful adventure even if we know that it won’t end up going anywhere.
The biggest challenge with this movie is its third act. The story represents all that was good about the 80’s and the worst. “Bumblebee” works because it doesn’t try to be anything more than it actually is, which is a relief after the last set of “Transformers” movies. But, what should have actually been a showstopper of a third act really just fades away with a wisp.
Is “Bumblebee” worth seeing? Yes, it is. Will you enjoy it? Sure. Will you remember it in five minutes? Probably not. But, if you’re looking for popcorn entertainment that the entire family can see, this is your ticket.
2.5 out of 4