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Bumblebee - Review

Bumblebee

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

WHO knew there was room for emotion in a Transformers movie? After five films of being bombarded with increasingly loud pyrotechnics and scantily clad women, the decision has been taken to scale things back.

Out went Michael Bay and in came Travis Knight, whose animated feature Kubo & The Two Strings immediately suggested a change in thinking. Admittedly, Bumblebee was initially conceived as a spin-off from the Michael Bay movies designed to broaden the Transformers universe in a manner befitting Disney’s Star Wars.

But after the critical pounding and commercial under-performance of The Last Knight, Bumblebee now arrives like a new start and even a fighting of the wrongs.

For starters, it’s much more family friendly. Gone is the hung-ho machismo, the military fetishism and the women draped across cars. Instead, we have a coming-of-age meets triumph-against the odds adventure that wears its inspirations like a heartfelt badge of honour.

The touchstones are obvious but beautifully realised. The original Transformers animated series, for instance. This taps into the tone inherent within those, opening with a fanboy shout-out set on Cybertron as Bumblebee makes his desperate escape to Earth.

Then there’s Steven Spielberg, who remains an executive producer. This has an ET feel in its central relationship, as the alien Bee befriends a teenage girl, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), and becomes something of a surrogate father and best friend as she struggles to get to grips with a great tragedy in her life.

Bee is being hunted, too, by the US military (and John Cena’s Agent Burns), and by two Decepticons. Hence, Knight’s film – working from a screenplay by Christina Hodson – balances family-style bonding with an inevitable race-against-time scenario, delivered in a boisterous manner befitting early Spielberg and homage-paying JJ Abrams (of Super 8 fame).

And then there’s the 80s setting, which allows Knight to indulge himself [and us] in retro playfulness. Everything from Mr T to The Breakfast Club via Miami Vice, A-Ha and Steve Winwood gets referenced here.

Another of Bumblebee’s great strengths, however, is that it knows how to honour its conventions and inspirations while still being savvy enough to subvert some of them.

Cena, for instance, offers a clear nod to the muscle men of the 80s (from Schwarzenegger to Stallone) but his quips combine classic cheesiness with knowing humour (he gets to dryly point out the fact that the name Decepticons should be a red flag). And where Bay’s movies sought cheap thrills in half dressed women, Knight opts to get the men topless here instead.

Bumblebee

But while keeping a great emphasis on fun, Knight knows how to balance this out with human drama too. He wants you to care and maybe even shed a quiet tear.

The relationship between Bee and Charlie is at the core of the movie’s success. It’s evident in the care that has been taken with capturing Bee’s expressions, and enhanced by the shading Steinfeld brings to Charlie.

Hence, while the film still impressed on a technical level and delivers several thrilling set pieces, it works as well as it does because of the emotional investment Knight ensures you have in the characters – an investment which overcomes some of the film’s more generic and obvious moments.

Bumblebee therefore rates as a charming surprise. It’s a Transformers movie to enjoy and even care about… and one capable of turning around this franchise’s fortunes for the better. It’s Breakfast Club-style air punches all round!

Certificate: PG
Running time: 2hrs
UK Release Date: December 23, 2018 (Previews December 15-16)