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Bumblebee: Autobot on the run

Bumblebee (PG)
Running time 1hr 54min
Rating: ****

EARLY in 2018, Paramount announced they were finally getting their act together, hanging creator Michael Bay out to dry as part of a bold plan to reboot the Transformers franchise, starting with this spinoff. Bumblebee director Travis Knightis the brains behind 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, an outstanding animation which owed more to the melancholy of Studio Ghibli than anything Western cinema has spewed forth of late. In other words, he fancies himself something of a Schmaltzfather, far from a natural fit where this most abrasive, smashy-crashy series is concerned. Ultimately, audiences are drawn to these movies by their sheer braindeadness, their unabashed lack of emotionally demanding content – the exact thing that’s had critics baying for Bay’s scalpel for close to a decade now.
Fear not, however – Bumblebee has more than its share of robotic bust-ups, crowd-pleasing set pieces and straightforward gags. What’s distinctly missing throughout this new effort is the series’ signature brand of balls-out vulgarity, supplanted by an undoubtedly artificial, albeit rather infectious, sentimentality. By the time the credits roll, we’ve been treated to the closest thing to a minor catharsis, a blueprint for how a Transformers movie SHOULD be done.

’80s nostalgia is all the rage right now (Stranger Things, It); embracing the inherent naffness of the whole transforming-vehicular-aliens thing, Bumblebee smartly reinvents its central robots as sources of retro glee, dragging the action back to 1987. The childlike Bumblebee, a transforming Volkswagen, is dispatched to Earth to set up an
Autobot refuge; suffering from amnesia, he here encounters Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an awkward proto-hipster struggling to come to terms with her father’s death. Charlie, an unlikely kid-hero cut from a Spielbergian mould, makes for the ideal antidote to Bay’s parade of meat-headed macho men and LaBeoufian dorks; the film takes its time in fleshing out the odd-couple relationship between her and Bumblebee, and much of its appeal is to be found in the domestic
shenanigans and well-calculated flashes of tenderness with which it bides its time.

Bumblebee’s intrusions into Charlie’s home life, which frequently degenerate into episodes of microscale destruction, recall the best moments from the first Transformers film; the movie’s genius is in its realisation of these touching asides as sequences every bit as rewarding as its more conventional action segments (of which there are many, including a well-crafted clash with the Decepticons that serves as Bumblebee’s intro). Those with a sweet tooth for uncomplicated whimsy will find much to love here. The core pairing is a (very explicit) throwback to the kids’ own sci-fi adventure flicks of the late-20th Century (ET, Flight of the Navigator); John Cena’s scene-stealing secret agent is a figure straight out of Miami Vice or the Witch Mountain series. It’s perhaps a touch too slick for its own good – the nostalgia comes packaged with a self-confidence that threatens to push the whole thing into the realms of outright parody. But Bumblebee offers much to relish. Here’s a hopeful note to kick off the New Year: a Transformers film that doesn’t suck.

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