The Transformers are famous for shifting from one form to another in the blink of an eye. And spin-off movie Bumblebee, just like its yellow-hued hero, transforms from sci-fi action to adorable family fun just as quickly.
Bumblebee is a prequel to the series of Transformers movies based on the much loved toys from the ’80s. And it represents a marked transformation from the bombastic action style of the five previous movies directed by Michael Bay.
Instead, Bumblebee’s director Travis Knight, the man behind the stunning Kubo and the Two Strings, strips things back to basics. Gone are Bay’s brand of macho techno-fetishism, leering camerawork peering up the leading ladies’ skirts and overblown CG nonsense (well, mostly). Instead, we get a movie based on a line of toys that’s actually suitable for kids.
Cleverly, the return to the basics is marked by a return to the 1980s. Bumblebee is the lone Autobot warrior arriving in 1987 on Earth, where a battle with an enemy Decepticon leaves him damaged and alone.
He’s discovered by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager who loves The Smiths, engines and her late father. Charlie and the car quickly help each other learn to live and love again, but their friendship is threatened when more Decepticons forge an alliance with a shadowy government agency that has a score to settle with Bumblebee.
The film shifts between tones, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes with a crunching of gears. One minute it’s violent future war, full of robots blasting the cogs off each other. Then it’s a kid-friendly slapstick romp as the giant yellow robot doesn’t know his own strength. Then it’s a teen coming-of-age story, as Charlie faces the local mean girls.
And for the adults, it’s all slathered in the greatest hits of the ’80s: Duran Duran, Wang Chung, The Breakfast Club, ALF — even the Transformers cartoon’s signature hair-metal anthem You Got the Touch.
That uber-radical ’80s-ness provides the key to this mashup of tones. Basically, Bumblebee is a throwback to classic family romps like Short Circuit, WarGames, Flight of the Navigator and ET. It’s no coincidence Steven Spielberg is listed as a producer.
Not all of it works. The bad guys are a bit blah, and the fights between computer-generated giants are more noisy than exciting. Still, it’s dialed down from Michael Bay’s incomprehensible carnage — most of the time, you can actually see which metal behemoth is which. There are some logic issues too. Like, under the hood is Bumblebee a regular car or a super-high-tech robot? Why does Charlie’s mom get annoyed about Charlie’s new car when it’s clearly changed her demeanor for the better?
But what holds it all together are three winning central performances. Steinfeld is irresistible as the plucky Charlie. John Cena is extremely in on the joke as a hilarious government agent. Then there’s Bumblebee himself, voiced by Dylan O’Brien. The big bumbling buddy makes a charming hero, bouncing from valiant warrior to energetically supportive best friend. Which is a transformation all the family can enjoy.