Bumblebee (***1/2) is straightforward storytelling

Director Travis Knight
Screenplay Christina Hodson
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon

The five Transformers movies that preceded this one are amazingly bad. That Michael Bay made money past the 3rd outing is a testament to marketing the films in other continents while including non sequitur scenes in those countries who would pay big money to see bad stories featuring fantastic looking mechanical nightmares wandering through them while wreaking havoc.

The last film should have been called “quit giving us money” because they did everything one could do to prevent people from wanting to watch the bilge that inhabited the screen like an unwanted drunk uncle at Christmas.

Finally free of the Bay curse of being spectacular in the most crappy way, Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) has taken the story of the most lovable Transformer to a place that makes the concept of robots coming alive and turning into modes of transport special once more.

Starting out with another version of the fall of Cybertron, we get to see flashes of some of our all time favorite Transformers. My favorite, Soundwave even sends out his cassette tape minions. There is no vision of Megatron, and that’s okay. He’s better than Optimus, but not that much better. The animation here feels like really good cartoons, but I was never convinced I was seeing the real thing.

The story is somewhat a rehash of the original film. Teenager doesn’t fit with the world and gets a special little beat up old car that turns out to be our heroic little hero. I say little because even though he’s easily 10 feet tall, he’s still smaller than all of the other robots in disguise.

This results in his getting a fair beating somewhat routinely, with one of them costing him his voice. Being a mute only makes him cuter, of course. He has some great conversions before, during and after his fights. There is a definite amount of work that went into his details. That they were able to work on so few made the dollar stretch a little more, for sure.

Steinfeld is Charlie. An 18 year old girl who is living with her mom, younger brother and her new step dad. She still hasn’t gotten over the death of her father a few years prior, and the fact that her mother moved on doesn’t help. She places a fair amount of acting skill behind the role. Her performance is augmented by solid, if unspectacular writing.

There are nice touches with her arc. It isn’t contingent on the affections of a boy, even one who is fawning over her like Memo (Lendeborg, Jr.). She has problems with a mean girl and solves them the way I might have in my High School.

Where the story goes wrong is with Hodson’s approximation of the action hero chaser guy, played by Cena. At first he needs to catch Bee, then he gets a view of our hero being heroic. After this, he’s the first person to point out to their new allies, Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick (Bassett and Theroux) might not be good. He even points out that their name uses the word “decept.”

Then, for crucial parts of the film he’s going after Bumblebee again until they make it as obvious as Luke being Leia’s sister became to Han Solo. It’s almost like she was overruled by the suits to dumb it up. A braver approach would have been to have Cena go with his notion and have our military making the right decisions. Cena is ever the good soldier though. He’s a guy who still seems just happy someone signed him to a movie contract. He works hard to replace his charisma with a studio version.

That the fights are fewer and far between makes them worth watching a little more than the incessant clashing and carnage we grew used to seeing in the earlier films. Still after all of the films it’s not clear what it is that kills a Transformer. Or what keeps them dead, even.

This film is 2nd best of the series, after the first one. It’s really not close after these two films, even if I enjoy Revenge of the Fallen quite a lot.

The end of the movie leaves room to connect it to that first film, or even take off to a different direction. I really can’t picture them making films based on other characters, though, I would love to see Soundwave on the big screen once more. And maybe more than a few seconds this time.

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