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Written by Christina Hodson, directed by Travis Knight and with Michael Bay presumably distracted by a shiny ball of explosions, Bumblebee is, rightly, being heralded as the Transformers movie that the series should have made years ago. Set in 1987 in a town which MAY RESEMBLE SANTA CRUZ BUT IS REPEATEDLY CONFIRMED AS NOT BEING SANTA CRUZ, it follows Charlie Watson, a grieving teenger. Her uncle Hank (Len Cariou in a wonderfully grumpy cameo) gifts her a crappy yellow Volkswagen beetle for her birthday on the condition she can get it running. Except of course the beetle is actually B127, the future Bumblebee. Dispatched to set up a base of operations on Earth at the end of the staggeringly good opening Cybertron sequence, B is voiced by Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien until he’s mutilated by a Decepticon when he arrives on Earth. In fact, B has the worst landing possible; simultaneously attracting the attention of a Decepticon scout and landing basically on top of Jack Burns (John Cena), a Sector 7 agent specializing in combating extraterrestrial life.
Jack’s the weak point of the movie and it’s not Cena’s fault. This is a 1980s movie, in setting, structure and tone, and those films demand an authoritarian sort of villain. Jack is Mister Nanny. Jack is the stuck up military advisor from Short Circuit. Jack’s Karate black belt is from the Cobra Kai dojo. He’s basically Duke. Go Joe. As a result his initially interesting set up never really goes anywhere because he’s architecture as much as he is a character. He is fun though and as the original franchises’ chronology is hilariously broken I’d have no issue with a basically un-aged Cena rocking up in 2019 and making Marky Mark do jumping jacks until he cries.
The rest of the cast are much better served. Hailee Steinfeld continues to quietly be the best new generation lead working today and Charlie is a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a grieving depressive. She’s fine until she isn’t, angry and unfocused and too aware of all of it. Steinfeld often presents as chafing against the limitations of the text and there’s a sense of that here, but here it’s fuel for that unease. She’s the best protagonist the series has ever had by a vast margin and I hope we see both Charlie and Burns again. Likewise, while the ‘dysfunctional family comes together to help’ element carried over from the original series is a little lumpy, it’s written and played with some really nice touches. I especially loved how Ron, played by Stephen Schneider, comes through in a pinch.
The entire movie is defiantly smaller scale and a lot of the time that pays off. This really is the story of a girl and her car and while the smaller scale feels a touch parochial it actually pays off. This is a story about Charlie healing and Bumblebee learning to be who he is. It’s sweet and funny, has a well handled romance and two transcendentally brilliant music gags. Plus Knight can shoot as many Transformer fights as he wants. From the opening brutalization of B127 to the acrobatic and inventive car versus helicopter fight versus OCEAN! fight that closes the movie there isn’t a scrap of the action that’s difficult to follow or unemotional to watch.
If there’s a problem here it’s that the film feels like it’s holding onto a couple of plot beats too many. Charlie’s family are a less shrill, far less annoying version of Spike’s. Likewise we know the Decepticons don’t find Earth because of the original movie but, weirdly, several Autobots leave Earth at some point between 1987 and the present day. But these are the problems this film solves by ignoring them and it’s best you do the same. All in all Bumblebee is a sweet natured, clever, scrappy movie that may have saved a franchise that’s deserved better for years. Go get ’em, little buddy. And bring Charlie back when you do.
Bumblebee is available to buy now.