My notes on Bumblebee A soft reboot for the Transformers franchise – this is a 1987-set prequel to the Michael Bay-directed blockbusters, and actually a rethink by director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and writer Christina Hodson (Unforgettable) of the first Bay movie, albeit with Hailee Steinfeld rather than Shia LaBoeuf as the mixed-up kid who bonds with an alien robot disguised as a car.
In the faint praise department, this trims a lot of the business that makes the other Transformers films so headache-inducing … we aren’t overloaded with characters, the battle scenes go on for less than six hours, the weird perv factor is downplayed (hot guys gets their shirts off, though – perhaps to make up for all those Bay shots that zero in on girls’ bottoms), the plot is more focused, and someone finally suggests that perhaps it’s not a good idea to trust creatures who call themselves ‘decepticons’. That said, it still struggles to make business no one really cared much about when they were crafting a cartoon show that was essentially an extended toy commercial into even loosely credible live-action drama. The ‘robots in disguise’ premise would make more sense if the transformers were capable of going two minutes without noisily and visibly shapeshifting, for instance … and a fuss is made about not letting the baddies know the goodies are hiding on Earth, when it scarcely seems a secret.
The whole big-screen Transformers thing is an exercise in 1980s nostalgia, which this embraces with a 1987 setting – cuing canny use of music, John Hughes references (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science), a Ronald Reagan portrait, Cold War paranoia, a new addition to the hidden history of Transformers whereby the bastards are responsible for inventing the internet, and chuckles over ALF on TV. With his voicebox gone (so Dylan O’Brien gets an easy gig as voice actor) and injured in battle, the yellow transformer shapes itself into a Volkswagen bug (technically, are Transformers fake-brand knock-offs?) and winds up in a junkyard where he’s found by Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a Smiths-loving gearhead teen depressed after her father’s death. She takes the car home, and soon finds out that it’s a big robot – which gets her whole family embroiled in the Transformers war, as the US government unwisely cuts a deal with evil robots to track the fugitive down. Charlie has teen movie stuff to go through – the nerd next door (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) has a crush on her, and she’s mistreated by a mean girl listed in the credits as the Mean Girl (Vanessa Ross) – plus she’s abandoned her previous prize-winning diving career because she associates it with her late Dad. There’s a parallel with the plot of Christine – Bumblebee also uses his radio to sample songs when trying to communicate – that suggests a darker vision this holds back from, though the equally obvious parallels with The Love Bug (or, given that Bumblebee is a parent substitute, My Mother the Car) also make this a sit-com punctuated by clanking and thrashing action scenes.
The ‘80s mood extends to plenty of licks from E.T. (or Flight of the Navigator, DARYL, Short Circuit, etc), including the inevitable death-and-resurrection and healing-of-a-broken-family. It’s likeable, swift and Steinfeld gives it heart … but it’s still a Transformers film.