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Bumblebee Review

December 21, 2018 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Bumblebee Transformers
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Bumblebee Review  

Directed By: Travis Knight
Written By: Christina Hodson; Based on the Hasbro toy series
Runtime: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Hailee Steinfeld – Charlie Watson
John Cena – Agent Burns
Pamela Adlon – Sally Watson
Jorge Lendeborg Jr. – Memo
Jason Drucker – Otis Watson
Len Cariou – Uncle Hank
Dylan O’Brien – Bumblebee
Peter Cullen – Optimus Prime
Angela Bassett – Shatter
Justin Theroux – Dropkick
Stephen Schneider – Ron
John Ortiz – Agent Powell
David Sobolov – Blitzwing

After 10 years of bloat and excess by filmmaker Michael Bay, the Transformers film franchise was in dire need of a reset after its fifth installment, The Last Knight. The new franchise spin-off, Bumblebee, isn’t really a reset and fresh start for the Transformers film series, but the new “prequel” is a step in the right direction.

Bumblebee begins at the fall of Cybertron. The Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime (Cullen, returning to the role for his sixth outing in the live-action film series), have been driven into a corner by the Decepticon army. With their backs against the wall, the Autobots are forced to evacuate Cybertron in order to regroup.

Bumblebee (O’Brien) is ordered to take his escape pod to planet Earth to help set up a new base of operations. Unfortunately, he crash lands in the middle of a Sector 7 military training exercise led by Agent Burns (Cena). The soldiers attempt to run down and capture Bumblebee, but another Decepticon, Blitzwing, attacks, laying waste to the soldiers.

Bumblebee is severely damaged in the battle, losing his voice box and frying his memory banks. This forces Bumblebee to take the form of a Volkswagen Beetle at a local junk heap. He’s later unwittingly discovered by the hard-luck teen, Charlie Watson (Steinfeld). Watson has been feeling alienated from her family since the loss of her father, and she’s been desperately trying to get the spare parts to finish the Corvette they started building together. After finding Bumblebee, she’s able to get his damaged chassis running again and discovers he’s a sentient, alien robot.

Unfortunately, Bumblebee is mute, his memory circuits are shot, and his demeanor is akin to an abandoned, stray puppy. So, it’s the common story of this unlikely duo forming friendship, and they help each other heal to some degree. Charlie has lost her confidence and desire as a championship diver. Bumblebee has lost his voice and his memories.

Meanwhile, Decepticon scouts Shatter (Bassett) and Dropkick (Theroux) have managed to track Bumblebee to Earth to find the whereabouts of Optimus Prime and the last vestiges of the Autobot resistance. They dupe Agent Ortiz of Sector 7 into thinking they are peacekeepers searching for an escaped criminal and gain access to the satellite network of the United States government, much to Agent Burns’ reluctance. With access to the US satellite network, they only need a matter of time before they locate Bumblebee and Charlie as well.

Under the supervision of Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight, Bumblebee is a leaner, more focused story that eschews the giant explosions and spectacle of the previous films and sequels. Instead, Knight makes a personal relationship between a girl and a robot the central focus of his story. Despite a budget that’s a fraction of the last The Last Knight, Travis Knight does well in using the action and visuals onscreen to their fullest.

In many ways, Bumblebee is similar in spirit to the core story of the 2007 film that made it one of the more watchable installments in the series. Knight’s version sheds a great deal of the tertiary characters, excess, out-of-place sexual humor and goofy subplots. This is a story about a girl forming a deeply intimate bond of friendship with a lost and damaged Autobot, Bumblebee, when they both are in need of friendship. Obviously, Knight takes more than a few pages from superior films, such as E.T. and The Iron Giant. One sequence in particular is basically a shameless recreation of the latter.

The supporting cast all acquit themselves decently enough. At least, John Cena at has the timing and presence to full off the movie’s best joke, which fans of Dr. Smoov’s parody videos will appreciate. Actually, his sense of dry comedic timing is quite underrated as he proves here.

Pamela Adlon, who has done a ton of voice work in cartoons over the years as Bobby Hill in King of the Hill and many more, has a nice role here as Charlie’s mother, Sally. Sally is a bit ignorant of what’s going on with her daughter emotionally, but she’s at least well meaning and present, which is refreshing for this type of role.

Charlie’s family members are a frequent source of comic relief. Fortunately, they fall a little bit short of being as offensively goofy as the more unfunny “comedic” characters in the Michael Bay films. They are generally likable and not all too mean-spirited as the parents and family members in these types of films can sometimes be. Besides Cena’s Agent Burns, none of the Sector 7 or military characters do much of note to leave an impression, except Ortiz’s Agent Powell, who is dumb enough to fall for all of the Decepticons’ tricks.

To the film’s credit, Bumblebee does play the personal moments with Charlie and Bumblebee very well in an earnest, sincere manner. There is still a decent amount of action in the film, but it’s severely dialed down from the Michael Bay movies. That’s completely fine considering how bloated and overblown with action and explosions they were becoming, without ever actually caring about the characters.

Bumblebee has undoubtedly been getting overhyped in the weeks toward its release. After 10+ years of the regression of the Transformers films to unintelligent dross, having a film such as Bumblebee may seem very refreshing. This isn’t the idealized live-action Transformers that fans have always wanted. It’s a step in the right direction, but not a full-on course correcting home run.

For starters, a lot of the Autobots and Decepticons have had their designs completely overhauled to hue closer to their classic G1 animated series character models. Even, Bumblebee’s primary alt-mode on Earth is the Volkswagen Beetle. The change to the Camaro for the character in the 2007 film never sat well with the Transformers faithful. That in itself was always symbolic of the major sacrifices for the franchise to placate Michael Bay’s ego in shaping the franchise to his own personal style.

The new designs for the robots are definitely some nice, nostalgic eye candy. The Autobots and Decepticons’ designs in the previous films were hot garbage, and they’ve always been hot garbage. Bumblebee proves Michael Bay wrong in that the iconic G1 designs could never be adapted into live-action and look good. They have been translated here, and they look great.

The unfortunate aspect is that, for the most part, the new designs are little more than token fan service. The scenes on Cybertron are rather brief. Much like the previous installments, the Cybertronians are given little in the way of meaningful dialogue, characterizations, substantive plot agency, or little to do at all, other than Bumblebee and Optimus Prime.

So, while these G1 heavy aspects are the major selling points to longtime Transformers fans, they amount to very little for the majority of the film. Even High Moon Studios Cybertron video games offered more character development for the bots.

So yes, as the initial trailers and promotional materials revealed, Soundwave actually looks, and sounds, like the original G1 Soundwave. He launches Ravage from his chest compartment. Those moments are there, and they look cool. The downside is that those moments are fleeting and not the focus of the story.

Additionally, the film seems to have trouble deciding whether it wants to be either a prequel or a soft reboot for the franchise. Granted, the Bay films’ continuity was far from the best. However, Bumblebee wholesale ignores parts of what Bay had previously established, such as the Protoform modes, while also reinforcing nonsense such as Bumblebee’s damaged voice box [which was inexplicably fixed at the end of the first movie…and then again in the fifth movie] and talking through a radio.

If Bumblebee is a success, and the film series is to continue, Paramount and Hasbro Studios should simply ignore the first five films and use this movie as Chapter 0. Bumblebee is far from perfect and fails to achieve a certain excellence, but it would be a stronger foundation for the franchise than what fans have been forced to digest before.

The final score: review Good
The 411
All in all, Bumblebee is a decent spinoff to the Transformers series. Travis Knight brings a fresh vision and aesthetic that the franchise desperately needed. However, he didn't hit it out of the park. Bumblebee is step in the right direction, but it's far from being a great film or a great Transformers film. Using such films as E.T.The Iron Giant as his blueprint, he basically made a decent 1980s family sci-fi matinee flick. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't go the extra mile in terms of mythology and character development. The major flaw of these films has always been the lack of agency, meaningful dialogue and character development for the bots, which still doesn't really happen here. Seriously, why is it so important for Bumblebee to talk through songs on a radio? It's weird.