When Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson finds Bumblebee in this Transformers prequel, the Autobot needs some loving care. Metaphor? You might as well spray it all over old yeller’s VW bonnet. After five nu-metal farragoes of decreasing appeal from Michael Bay, director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson (Unforgettable) face an uphill struggle: how do you repair a franchise write-off this rough?
Charm and fun number among the solutions offered by Knight, the Laika animator who made a gorgeous, heartfelt directorial debut with Kubo and the Two Strings. Despite the odd awkward tonal gear shift, Knight’s origin story makes refreshingly light work of its uphill climb, fuelled by wit and warmth. And – crucially – with better songs on the retro-tape deck.
True, the heart briefly sinks in sync with the camera as the prologue plunges to Cybertron. More metal-on-metal melees? Yikes. But, besides helping to make it clear which giant robot is lamping which, the boxy simplicity of Knight’s retro-engineered designs shows a genuine affection for the source cartoons. As for Bumblebee’s voice, Dylan O’Brien’s faintly dorky delivery suggests something equally helpful: Knight gets the ‘for kids’ thing without condescension.
Where Bay targeted nostalgic fans who should have outgrown maxed-up toy stories, Bumblebee streamlines and refreshes the nostalgia angle by rewinding to the Transformers’ formative years for a more tween-friendly telling. In California, 1987, Steinfeld’s 18-year-old Charlie grieves for her late dad as she bickers with her mum, endures her dim-bulb step-dad and tinkers with old cars. Yes, tinkers: appealingly klutzy but capable, Charlie spends more time under cars than draped over them. Her band T-shirts pinpoint musical upgrades too, with Bay’s sausage-metal ousted by well-chosen ’80s pleasures from the Smiths to Simple Minds.
Despatched to earth by Optimus Prime, the sweetly curvy ’Bee suffers bruising scraps with Decepticons before taking cover among other broken-down vehicles, where Charlie finds him. Although Charlie later develops ties with goofball-next-door Memo (an endearing Jorge Lendeborg Jr), her mutually restorative ’Bee bond anchors the comedy and action with an uncomplicated focus that proves welcome after Bay’s strenuous ’bot-based myth-building. Knight’s plot lifts – E.T., The Iron Giant – are transparent, but at least he lifts from the best and makes warm work of the job.
If he can’t revive interest in the five-films-old Autobots-vs-Decepticons war so easily, he does manage to wring some fun from it. Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) arrive equipped with some triple-changing swagger and nifty sado-moves. True, their alliance with US forces is silly. But at least its idiocy doesn’t go unnoticed by Burns (John Cena), the kind of military man who barks “There’s a door in my way” when he wants something blowing up and banks almost enough mock-macho likeability to get away with his cheesier moments.
Although some of the zingers could use a little sharpening, Hodson’s dashes of wit do bring levity to a series that didn’t previously ‘do’ humour in ways recognisable to human ears. Steinfeld’s equally grounded character adds heart and a can-do streak: where other writers might have ‘fixed’ her sorrows with manly assistance, Charlie takes charge of the fixing here. Whether she’s checking her armpits for BO or gently rebuffing Memo’s awkward advances, Charlie plays like a bid to call time on the hot-pants fetishism of Bay’s era. In that savvy fix and elsewhere, Knight and Hodson have salvaged something agreeable from an otherwise badly dented series.
- Release date: December 21, 2018 (US)/December 26, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: PG-13 (US)/12A (UK)
- Running time: 113 mins