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Film review: Bumblebee

Sarah Ward

The sixth film in the Transformers franchise successfully swaps smash-and-crash action for a small-scale story with heart.
Film review: Bumblebee

More than three decades years since Hasbro’s shape-shifting toys made their US debut, adults still stick Transformers’ Autobot and Decepticon emblems on their cars. The insignias adorn everyday vehicles driving across ordinary roads, as if they too could morph into intergalactic robots. Perhaps more than any of the franchise’s live-action films since its 2007 debut, Bumblebee is for the men and women who mark their rides with a reminder of their childhood playthings. It’s also for today’s kids who, if they’re not hypnotised by the series’ smash-and-crash (and scantily clad-women)-heavy initial five outings, wonder why their parents retain a soft spot for the brand. Not just steeped in ‘80s affection but also set during the era, this spinoff treats its transforming titular hero with the fondness of a favourite toy rather than the slickness of a multi-level product empire. 

Yellow in colour and taking on the form of a Volkswagen Beetle when he arrives on earth, B-127 aka Bumblebee isn’t a toy for newly minted 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 3). He’s her first car, the one that her widowed mother (Pamela Adlon, TV’s Better Things) and her stepfather (Stephen Schneider, Broad City) won’t buy her, and that the local junkyard dismisses as just that: junk. When Bumblebee transforms before his new custodian’s eyes, he becomes a friend to a lonely, grieving, proudly outcast teen as well. But earth isn’t kind to an alien entity that can disguise itself as a well-worn coupe, with government agent Burns (John Cena, Blockers) on the mechanical creature’s trail — plus two of the Autobot’s Decepticon enemies (voiced by The Spy Who Dumped Me’s Justin Theroux and Mission: Impossible — Fallout’s Angela Bassett) from his home planet of Cybertron. 

Bearing more resemblance to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and to human-and-animal films such as Kes and Storm Boy, than to Michael Bay’s five brain-numbing movies of diminishing returns, Bumblebee turns the gears of a stripped back, emotionally resonant story: of two beings connecting. Charlie wants her freedom, to remember her deceased father, and for her remaining family to realise that she’s still mourning, but she wants someone to really see her, too. It mightn’t have been possible in instalments starring Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg, but a Transformer capably fills that role in this coming-of-age effort.

Making his live-action debut after Oscar-nominated animation Kubo and the Two Strings, director Travis Knight doesn’t simply find the balance between Bumblebee’s personal tale and the broader Transformers world. Working with a script by Christina Hodson (Unforgettable), he firmly favours the former, with the film steeped in Charlie’s experiences more than those of warring robots. Indeed, her precocious younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul) and romantically interested neighbour Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love, Simon) enjoy as much screen time as the evil machines intent on wreaking havoc, and as Cena’s initially cautious military man. Mean girls, cute boys, part-time jobs, and remembering her dad by continuing to work on cars defines Charlie’s daily life both before and after Bumblebee appears, with this everyday minutiae weaved into the fabric of her story.

The action, deployed not so much sparingly but smartly, makes more of an impact as a result. Knight might start the movie with a Cybertron-set prologue, but it demonstrates what the intermittent rough-and-tumble that follows also manages: clarity rather than chaos. The feature’s opening scenes also visually hark back to the toys’ cartoon days, offering ‘80s kids turned ‘10s adults a warm reminder of the Transformers of old. Once more, the film that follows steps into formation; as Steinfeld’s spirited, charismatic Charlie bonds with her new pal while sporting The Smiths t-shirts, watching The Breakfast Club and listening to a period-appropriate soundtrack, she embodies a softer, gentler, more nostalgic vision of Hasbro’s playthings. 

Still, while Bumblebee might reinvent the Transformers mould by going back to the brand’s roots — or tapping into the memories and feelings of the toys’ original fans — it doesn’t reinvent its various components. Hodson’s screenplay happily hews to the familiar in both Charlie’s tale and Bumblebee’s, though never cloyingly, clumsily, cynically or lazily so. A big heart and a sense of wonder go a long way for the movie as a whole, for its central relationship and for course-correcting the otherwise sinking franchise that the feature belongs to. Thanks to this sixth series effort, another generation just decided to deck out their own cars when they grow up. And, when more Transformers films eventuate, as they will, each new chapter will tread in Bumblebee’s rather than Bay’s footsteps.

3 ½ stars out of 5: ★★★☆

Bumblebee
Director: Travis Knight
US, 2018, 113 mins

Release date: 20 December
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: M 

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay