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‘Bumblebee’ Is Best In Franchise Thanks To 1980’s Schmaltz

Paramount Pictures

Bumblebee
Directed by Travis Knight
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr, and Angela Bassett
114 Minutes
Reber’s Rating – B+

Okay, look, before we go any further, I am painfully aware of what I said about Transformers: The Last Knight. I stand behind my review too. The 2017 sequel was stupid nonsensical fun that was unapologetic in nature and just a bizarre wacky action-heavy rollercoaster meant to dazzle audiences. Though, after directing all five films of the franchise, even I knew that Michael Bay needed to take a step back from the franchise. As I’ve said before Bay’s best movies are the smaller-scale passion projects, not the larger-than-life blockbusters that lose focus and deviate from his control. For the Transformers franchise to carry onto into another decade Bay needed to step away and let someone bring in a fresh perspective.

I just never expected first-time director Travis Knight, whose wild imagination helped fuel the likes of Coraline and Paranorman, and screenwriter Christina Hodson, her only claim to fame being 2017’s Unforgettable (nevermind the irony), to be those responsible for making the franchise viable again. Not just viable – but the best of the 11-year-old franchise.

See, there’s something about Bumblebee that empowers this prequel to stand apart from its brethren. Maybe the charm of lead Hailee Steinfeld and rising star power of WWE wrestler John Cena helps to add two distinct layers to the plot. Perhaps centralizing the film squarely on Bumblebee, a fan favorite in the franchise aside from Optimus Prime, aids in tuning up the look and feel of the Transformers franchise. And sure, some will say the decision to make human characters the focal point takes away from the point of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. By the film’s end, which is a tight 114 minutes and never once feels like a long theatrical event, you’ll find that the leaner meaner Bumblebee proves to be the best of the franchise by shedding its roots of moody adult thematics and embracing a high-spirited direction evocative of the mid-1980’s cartoon.

The film does start off eons away from Earth on the war-torn Cybertron, with our heroic Autobots cornered and prepping to vacate their home lost to the Decepticons. Yes, Bumblebee does speak and quite well. Yes, we get the sorely-missed G1 Transformers designs that got dumped due to the film property’s contract with Chevrolet. Yes, we bear witness to fearless leader Optimus Prime leading the charge. Knight’s film isn’t about the war on Cybertron, though, I would welcome a massive theatrical blockbuster chronicling that struggle. Bumblebee is a smaller-budgeted film, choosing to intimately focus on one character than the bigger picture. For a good five minutes I worried the latest Transformers installment would be same schtick, different day. Instead, once B-127 (yes – Bumblebee has a different name) reaches Earth to set up base for the Autobots, the film left turns from familiar territory and deviates to a different formula.

If you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s iconic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, then you’re in for a real treat. In order to save the franchise from how overly-complicated the story had become, newcomers Knight and Hodson instead take us back to basics. Gone is the bombastic nature of the plot, the Autobots finding themselves in another Decepticon threat that could destroy mankind as we know it. There’s only so many times the story can become more preposterous and maintain some sense of amusement. Focusing on B-127, his memory faded and unsure of his own identity, makes for a hell of an entertaining ride. Much like Elliot in E.T., Steinfeld’s Charlie develops a true friendship with out Autobot soldier. Rather than the cheeky character we know formerly, Bumblebee is much like a lost child and afraid of the strange land in which he awakens. That’s where the film shines most, following Bumblebee as he discovers a compassion that he did not possess while still on Cybertron.

Rooting the story in the 1980’s does wonders to distance from the muddled mess that Bay had created. To go back to a much simpler time, before technology really bloomed and mankind was mired in the throngs of the Cold War, allows Bumblebee room to breathe. The era was defined by Reaganomics, Alf, frozen TV dinners, and loud music. There were no cellphones, no tablets nor laptops, no Wifi nor mainstream Internet. Placing Bumblebee in this era creates for some real lighthearted comedy, something that Michael Bay could never grasp properly before. (Case in point – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.) Without his memory intact, Bumblebee is terror-stricken. Trying to adapt to crude technology and the era’s popular culture are foreign. Atari? Mr. Coffee? VHS and record players? He loves The Breakfast Club but loathes The Smith’s. He’s a playful toddler who learns humanity via Steinfeld’s Charlie and Lendeborg Jr.’s Memo.

One aspect of Bay’s previous installments that nagged me were the human characters. Sure, Shia LaBeof’s Sam Witwicky was tolerable as the human sidekick, his finest hour remaining the gratifying adult sequel Dark of the Moon. Mark Wahlberg has become one of the finest action stars but didn’t feel quite right in his films. Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie, though, is a far more compelling and stronger-willed counterpart in comparison. Charlie is a tenacious, yet sorrowed, teenager trying to keep her head high after her father’s passing. Her mother has moved on and remarried, leaving the youth to feel like she’s on her own island. So, in her discovery of the wayward Bumblebee, the two share a common bond. Both are strangers who are cast out from their homes. Steinfeld has blossomed into a gifted young actress and anchors Bumblebee ably without needing bigger marquee actors to carry the load. We actually can believe her sense of wonderment in friending a mythological being such as B-127. Their bond is palpable, leading to the same emotional attachment we felt in E.T. years before.

Bumblebee also manages to serve as an origin story of sorts once our titular hero lands on Earth. Travis Knight tips his hat to the iconic Matthew Broderick-led Wargames, a tale of a spunky youth in opposition of an overly-cautious government trying to control a power way out of its understanding. Section 7 and their Hoover Dam base (no strangers to the franchise at all) serve as the government force, headed by a forceful John Cena. Cena finally feels comfortable in serving as a co-lead on a movie without hamming up the scenery too much, nearly swiping the carpet from underneath Steinfeld in the process. Unlike his comedic turn in the uproarious Blockers, Cena does his best to play Agent Burns as more the stern and hardened soldier who approaches threats with force. We also see a very fresh-faced Agent Simmons for a hot minute, making us appreciate John Turturro’s misguided agent just a teensy bit more in the other Transformers films. Even relative newcomer Jorge Landeborg Jr manages to shine as the boy next door who pines for Charlie. Though, without the amount of earnest humor sprinkled into the script, Bumblebee wouldn’t work in the first place. Just keep an ear out for the voices of both the Autobots and Decepticons. There’s some surprises to be heard.

And, if you think the crux of the film is all humor, then just wait until you see how kinetic the action sequences dazzle when a director with fresh perspective breathes new life into a franchise needing new direction.

As I made mention in my review for Mary Poppins Returns, theaters are bombed by so many new releases at the moment. There’s a movie for everyone’s varying tastes in this lengthy Christmas break. As much a rollicking time I had in watching Disney’s sequel a couple days prior, the feel-good excitation evoked by Bumblebee was a whole different feeling. Travis Knight doesn’t direct like a novice director, nor does the script feel written by a newcomer to the franchise. Shying away from the plodding narrative and choosing to release a prequel on a tighter budget does wonders for the overall film. Main characters looking for a sense of purpose when they’re left alone, the right balance of comedy and action to make for a fun time in the theater, and characters who aren’t over-the-top cliches is a fresh change of pace. Perhaps all Michael Bay ever needed to do was stop trying to create action porn. Bumblebee is the best of the franchise thanks to not just a simpler time period but simpler approach to get back to basics.