MOVIE REVIEW: Dumb blockbuster is surprisingly good
Going into Bumblebee, there are two competing sets of expectations.
On the one hand, it's a Transformers movie so it's probably going to be a bloated and ridiculous mess like its predecessors. On the other hand, it's directed by Travis Knight, the man who made the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings, an emotionally sophisticated and charming animated feature.
The question then becomes whether Knight's creative instincts would be crushed by the behemoth of the unthinking Transformers franchise.
The result? Bumblebee, a Transformers prequel set in the 1980s, is surprisingly serviceable. Most of the time, it's actually quite fun and absorbing, due in large part to an appealing performance from Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson, a punk-loving, mechanically inclined teen who discovers an old, yellow VW Beetle in a scrap yard. A car that happens to be a Transformer in disguise.
Charlie's affinity for machines comes from her dad, who died of a heart attack some years back. Her grief and loss at his death is what fuels Bumblebee, and it's the kind of pathos Knight infused in Kubo, and a sensibility that grounds an otherwise ridiculous franchise.
Once Bumblebee reveals himself to Charlie, the two form a bond, a friendship that's oddly convincing.
When two Decepticons (Dropkick and Shatter) follow Bumblebee's signal to Earth, it unleashes a showdown between the alien-robots, one battle in the universe-sized war waging in the cosmos.
There's also a subplot involving the American government, embodied in Agent Jack Burns, a misused John Cena who's not allowed to be his goofy best, but then isn't menacing enough either.
Bumblebee works best when the story is focused on Charlie and her world, which includes her exasperated mum Sally (Pamela Adlon) and new friend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), plus various school bullies and mean girls.
But when Bumblebee shifts to this ongoing war between Decepticons and Autobots on Cybertron, it loses all meaning, a boring mishmash of CGI and tiresome exposition.
Steinfeld manages to sell the connection between Charlie and Bumblebee, at one point acting the hell out of an emotional moment with what was probably a ball atop a stick against a green screen.
It's cute, the way he encourages her to take more chances and she teaches him about music.
The soundtrack is a who's who of 80s anthems with the likes of Steve Winwood, A-ha, Culture Club, The Cure, Duran Duran and Tears for Fears while references to Russia and Cold War paranoia situate it firmly in its milieu.
It has a few obvious call-backs to The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, drawing a line from John Hughes to Bumblebee, which at times feels like a tribute to the teen flicks of that era. Steinfeld would not be out-of-place alongside Molly Ringwald or, more likely, Mary Stuart Masterson's Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful.
If only Bumblebee could've done away with all the silly Transformers stuff altogether - it would've been much better movie if such a thing was possible.
Bumblebee is in cinemas today.
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