BUMBLEBEE – Review
Okay, now just a couple of days ago, one of the year’s most anticipated sequels (54 years in the making) was released. So, while Ms. P is soaring through the skies, how about a change of pace? Who’s up for a “prequel”? You know, a story before the story you’ve already seen. This past Summer not very many (for this lucrative franchise) turned out for the much-hyped character rather than story prequel SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Sure, it’s settled into this year’s top ten box officer grosser at number eight, but the franchise entries of the last few years have climbed into the top three (often in the top spot). That’s not of concern to the folks over at Paramount Studios. For the last eleven years, they’ve sent out five live-action feature films (of varying quality and profitability) all spawned from a very beloved line of toys (yes, not a TV series or comic book, but toys). Oh, and they’ve all been helmed by the same director. Now a new talent takes the reigns for the first “spin-off’ prequel” in the TRANSFORMERS franchise, focused on a “fan favorite’ supporting player in the series, the yellow-hued “Autobot” nicknamed BUMBLEBEE.
Being a prequel, this has to be set in the past, right? Just how far back do we set the “Waybac” machine? 1987, thirty-one years ago (and twenty years before the first big flick) is the year when the “good guy” Autobots are scattered across the galaxy after they are attacked by the ruthless Decepticons trying to dominate their homeworld of Cybertron. Optimus Prime sends the smaller Autobot, Bumblebee, to Earth as a scout (hopefully the Autobots will later re-group on a “safe” world). The plucky robot crashes to our planet, narrowly avoiding a special forces team, headed by Burns (John Cena), who are engaged in combat exercises in the wooded locale. The troops aren’t so lucky when a Decepticon arrives in pursuit. Burns and his troops are injured, as is Bumblebee (the “bad bot” disables his “voice box” and memory systems). Luckily BB gets the upper hand, destroying his foe, and escaping after mimicking a nearby Volkswagen “bug”. Not far away, in a small ocean-side town, we meet soon to be eighteen-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s had a rough couple of years after losing her adored father. Her kid brother’s a karate-loving pain, Mom (Pamela Adlon) is too “hovering” and her new hubby is kind of a doofus. While working her Summer job at a nearby amusement park (“hot dog on a stick”, yummy), a smitten co-worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg) tries to connect as the rich popular kids put down the both of them. Ah, but more than popularity, Charlie, a “gear-head” whiz, wants a car. And when she sees the beaten-up yellow VW (there’s a hive inside) at Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) salvage yard, it’s love at first sight. Turns out the grumbly Hank has a heart of gold and gives the car to her as a birthday present. Alone in the garage with her prize, Charlie begins tinkering under the chassis. Then two pupil-like eye beams flash on. Bumblebee reveals his true form to her, transforming from auto to hulking ten-foot-tall android. Though he has a new friend, BB is not out of danger. Two more Decepticons, the assassins Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (vo: Justin Theroux), arrive on Earth and make contact with Burns and the officers and scientists at his remote desert military outpost. The two “bad bots” offer their advance tech in exchange for communications access. While they say they wish to help mankind, the two are actually using the satellites to track the Autobot scout. Can Charlie keep the secret of Bumblebee hidden from her family and friends, while avoiding the battle-scarred Burns, his heavily-armed squadron and the two Decepticons out for his blood…er..oil?
Since the story mainly focuses on one Autobot, the cast is not as large as the previous Transformers flicks (fewer ‘bots, fewer humans, I guess that’s logical). Steinfeld plays the human heroine of the tale with great energy and humor. Her Charlie is more complex than the misfit tough gals in any uninspired high school “coming of age” dramedy. Steinfeld shows us her longing and urgency coupled with a sadness for the father figure she’s lost (I’m guessing that she was his second set of hands in the garage). Plus we see that this new friendship has reignited her sense of adventure and her desire to stand up for herself. Charlie’s main adversary (aside from the “mean girls” and the Decepticons) is Cena as the gregarious macho dude who is changed physically and mentally by his “close encounter”. With the jagged scar stretching from forehead to jaw Burns becomes a turbo-charged captain Ahab, obsessed with revenge against these Alien devices. Even as his superiors agree to join forces with the deceitful duo, he voices his extreme reservations (“They call themselves Decepticons! Hello?!”). There’s great comic relief provided by Lendeborg’s Memo who alternates between adoration and terror in his pursuit of Charlie. And Adlon’s is great as the tough and tender matriarch, though it’s not as complex as her usual gig on TV’s “Better Things”.
Replacing Michael Bay in the director’s chair (he made the first five franchise flicks) is live-action feature film newcomer Travis Knight (He directed the wonderful stop-motion animated feature KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS in 2016). Knight brings an epic feel to the opening battle sequence on Cybertron, though the rapid angle tilts can seem disorienting amongst the sparks and cannon flares (and the swooshing and clanging audio track). Thankfully he calms things down back on this planet as the story shifts its focus on Charlie and family. The script often overdoses on 80’s nostalgia with boxes full of cassettes, VHS tapes, Mt. T cereal at the breakfast table and “Alf” and the game “Pong” on the big 19 inch TV. When Charlie gets to know BB, it almost shifts into ET meets THE IRON GIANT mode, then busts off a few teen angst bits right from the John Hughes playbook. Luckily Knight can cut to the sinister campy villainy of the “bad bots” who bring a nice twist to the “friendly aliens” of that era. There’s too much time devoted to teen class conflict, but the story soon gets back on track as it gears up for a midnight rumble on the docks. One welcome change from the other films is the slicker, more simplified design of the Autobots and their enemies. Perhaps since it’s set at the time of their original TV cartoon series, they resemble the look from those and the old Marvel Comics, without the multitude of distracting gizmos and gears over every inch of the CGI cast. Speaking of, kudos for the animators for making the main character so expressive, from his tiny “headlight’ eyes to the radio that “dials” up his dialogue. It’s a nice change from the barrage of noise and the constant sensory assault of the other movies (particularly the last headache-inducing one). Basically this is a high-tech, sci-fi, pop culture cluttered take on the girl and her horse films of long ago (NATIONAL VELVET). If this is the new direction for the series, then this “origin” of BUMBLEBEE is a welcome first step.
3 Out of 5