Playful "Bumblebee" Not Enough To Redeem "Transformers" Series

Paramount’s “Transformers” series hit creative and financial rock bottom with 2017’s “The Last Knight,” simultaneously the franchise’s most expensive and lowest grossing entry to date. Michael Bay’s exhausting robot-on-robot action had finally ground its original audience down to a nub. Still, the movie turned a small profit, meaning a long in the works Bumblebee solo film would proceed as planned. That movie, mercifully not directed by Michael Bay but longtime Laika animator Travis Knight, has arrived. It is a significant course correction for the series but only a modest success.

Set in 1987, “Bumblebee” basically repurposes 80s classic “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” to tell the story of the Transformers’ first contact with Earth; three foot wrinkled alien out, hulking vehicular robot in. Despite a refreshingly small scale (the action never overwhelms) and a few major laughs, it is a mild, predictable endeavor that hardly makes up for a decade of increasingly trashy actioners.

Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) is characteristically terrific here as high school senior Charlie Watson, the Elliott to Bumblebee’s E.T. As she mucks her way through the muddy waters between adolescence and adulthood, the arrival of B-127 (who she eventually nicknames Bumblebee) at her uncle’s scrapyard comes as a godsend. At first it’s just because she longs to ditch her motorized bicycle for a car – to gain a modicum of freedom from her emotionally distant mom and stepdad. The unassuming old Volkswagen Beetle fits the bills perfectly.

When Bumblebee reveals his true nature, it’s his friendship that proves vital to Charlie. The two help each other through their respective rough patches and Charlie’s identity and self-worth are remade, making her the perfect candidate to shield Bumblebee from the evil Decepticons hunting him. Several well-known Transformers get involved in the narrative (Peter Cullen returns to voice Optimus Prime), but the focus is squarely on Charlie and her new fiberglass friend.

Wrestler-turned-screen-actor John Cena co-stars as secret government agent Jack Burns, a potentially thankless supporting role that works in part because of a few good one-liners and Cena’s deadpan comic timing. In any other Transformers sequel, the character would register as a total cliché – a hardened military veteran made alien hunter. But unburdened of Michael Bay’s clanging storytelling, Jack Burns proves a fun sideshow. And Cena only seems to get funnier with each screen appearance.

The movie’s overuse of 80s music (ironically, not Billy Ocean’s forever irresistible “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”) is unfortunate; Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson never pass on a chance to remind us what decade we’re in. Myriad nods to John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” wear quickly. So does Charlie’s family. Her parents and little brother are aggressively irritating, the unit’s parent-child dynamic painted in the broadest strokes imaginable as to be as ineffectual as possible.

But as a respite from a series worth of Michael Bay’s worst creative instincts? “Bumblebee” mostly works. Taken on its own, it’s only lightly amusing. Taken as an antidote to “The Last Knight,” as a soft reset to a series that probably isn’t going away any time soon, it gets a passing grade.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 21, 2018
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence)