Bumblebee movie director: Travis Knight
Bumblebee movie cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, John Cena, Pamela Adlon
Bumblebee movie rating: 3 stars
A lonely, bullied teenager who pines alone in her garage, listening to soulful music. A broken, lonely soldier who has lost his memory and voice. Clueless parents, genuine laughs, a budding friendship, and only a few things that go boom. Yes, this too can be a Transformers film. And taking over from regular director Michael Bay, Travis Knight zeroes in on what the many, dizzyingly moving parts of this franchise’s towering machines desperately needed: a beating heart.
The film’s centrepiece, an Autobot called Chris, makes you feel for every pummelling he takes from the Decepticons chasing him across planets. Bearing the hope of Autobots to survive the Decepticon onslaught, all the way from their planet Cybertron to Earth, Chris is smaller than the others of his kind, but his vulnerability lies not just there but in the way he is filmed crouching, unsure, tentative, feeling his way around. Bumblebee is an origin film, meant to set off the entire Transformers franchise, which itself was born of a successful toy series.
On Earth, Chris meets Charlie, a girl who finds him hiding out as a Volkswagen Beetle and drives him home thinking she finally has a car. She is good with tools, words, and time, and Chris needs all of that, and more. It is she who names him Bumblebee, for the small noises he makes trying to communicate.
Steven Spielberg is associated with this Transformers film, like the four others which have come before, and you can spot a lot of E.T. in Bumblebee. Knight, with just one animation film behind him, after all, is not trying to do anything too pathbreaking here. Charlie is your standard rebel; her life is standard American film material though her mother, as played by Pamela Adlon, brings a nice and unruffled touch; John Cena is standard Yankee soldier-patriot at heart, adequately paranoid about what Cold War Russia is up to (the year is 1987); Spielberg has already set the gold standard for an aliens-meet-humans scenario; while Bay admittedly has given Knight a standard successful springboard from where to take off. Still, it’s the new bounce in those moves that promises a fresh lease of life for this franchise.
Watch Bumblebee mess around with a kite, use radio to talk with Charlie and her friend after he loses his voice, crouch scared in a corner, lie down obediently as Charlie tinkers around with his machinery, rub eggs gleefully on the car of a girl who bullies her, sit head between knees behind a tiny rock in a laughable attempt to ‘hide’ when trapped. That will keep you going through all the heavy metal clashes — yes, there are plenty of that, but again in edited cuts that actually let you follow the action — and might even bring you back for a repeat.