Bumblebee is a Transformers movie that harks back to some of our most beloved family films, says Dan Slevin.
The Transformers franchise has become symptomatic of the bloat of modern commercial cinema. With Michael Bay at the helm of each of the five films, the Sturm und Drang grew to overwhelm whatever nostalgic charms a plastic toy-inspired motion picture was orginally able to offer. By the time of The Last Knight (2017), the franchise had become a parody of itself, which inevitably then lends itself to reinvention or reboot.
And here we are. Hasbro – owner of the plastic toy intellectual property – and Paramount Pictures – the company that now has the cinematic skin in the game – have enlisted the respected animation director Travis Knight to see what life he can squeeze out of this cash-cow and the answer is Bumblebee – and it’s actually not bad.
Bumblebee is a prequel to the five existing films, and it focuses on a minor character, a cute little yellow and black Camaro who speaks through his car radio. In this chapter of the story he is a scout Transformer, dispatched from the planet Cybertron which has been overrun by the evil Decepticons (but I expect you already knew that). His job is to hide on little old Earth and set up a base where the Transformers can regroup but the moment he crash lands he is set upon by both a human army unit (led by John Cena) and a Decepticon scout who erases his memory and destroys his voice, thus allowing him to become a delightful innocent abroad when he is discovered in a junkyard several years later by teenage mechanic and former diving champion, Hailee Steinfeld.
The section of the film where they bond and Bumblebee discovers the world from his now less macho shape as a cute Beetle, are the best bits of a film that every so often has to remind itself that it’s a Transformers picture and deliver an action set-piece. Because Transformers is effectively a nostalgia exercise, it makes sense that a grown-up audience’s nostalgia for 80s flicks about kids getting into trouble with aliens and such (touchstones like E.T. and The Goonies) would be activated in this way. And, because those films are also good, youngsters should respond to all those beats too.
Since 2009, Travis Knight has been animating stunning stop-motion animation for his own company, Laika, including the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) which he also directed. He has chops in this arena and Bumblebee should open a few more doors for him (if being the son of the founder of Nike hadn’t done that already). Wrestler John Cena continues to impress, to the extent that I might start recommending all young actors go through that WWE finishing school, and Steinfeld is as reliably feisty as she was when the Coens discovered her for True Grit back in 2010.
While the resolution still requires too much robot punching and not enough intelligence, that’s a complaint I have about most blockbusters and shouldn’t get in the way of the things in Bumblebee that do work.
Bumblebee is still in theatrical release across New Zealand.