Travis Knight’s BUMBLEBEE is a joy to behold but, I firmly believe, its appeal will be limited to a contingent I’m not entirely sure I can accurately identify. It is, most certainly, not intended- at all- for whatever loyal fans the preceding Hasbro franchise entries managed to conjure up in its five-movie run. The visuals from the head of Laika Studios cannot be more apart from the Rorschach tests we had grown accustomed to enduring from Michael Bay. However, and quite contrary to the ongoing barrage of press coverage on how Paramount is almost exclusively concerned with cornering an audience of children, this is definitely not a movie most kids will really connect with- there is a surprisingly low amount of action in the 110-minute film, and instead there is an even shockingly larger succession of dialogue-heavy sequences. Such scenes happen to be extremely likable bits of character building- mostly between Hailee Stanfield’s 'Charlie' and a genuinely endearing Bumblebee. As delightful and thoroughly fundamental for the resulting and completely unexpected (at least by this writer) success this movie turned out to be as they are, the result is a far cry from the unabashedly action-packed event the trailers and T.V. spots promise.
The story dwells heavily on bona fide adolescent angst which threatens- at least from a merely conceptual, initial standpoint- to ostracize both extremes on the age spectrum yet it feels, at the same time, too earnest and heartfelt for teens to actually empathize with it. It stars a girl but it barely touches on boy trouble; it has an acceptable John Cena but it mostly follows a girl with literal dad issues.
The thing is, the concoction screenwriter Christina Hodson came up with- unorthodox as it may be in its almost exact retelling of Bay’s original- is extremely rewarding for just about anyone willing to widen their horizons and enjoy. Setting the story in 1987 was the first step to guarantee the closest thing to widespread acceptance in this, still the age of It- and Stranger Things-mania, and the incessant, ultimate-80s soundtrack won’t let you for a second forget when we are (for a moment the song overload seems even more overwhelming than Scorsese’s Casino). Thankfully, though, that is very much the one overindulgence the filmmakers chose to embrace; rather than inundating the production design with leg-warmers, where that decade’s influence feels the clearest is simply in tone. BUMBLEBEE- along with Ant-Man and The Wasp some months back- show a reverence towards the open-eyed astonishment and enthusiasm towards sheer adventure and the amazing unknown best embodied, of course, by Amblin releases like Innerspace and *batteries not included and even by some of the mostly forgotten catalog items like My Science Project and the Short Circuit films.
It is fun.
The look is designed accordingly: the palette is rainbow-colored and California bright, straight out of a vintage Coca-Cola ad and almost entirely shot in the daytime; the costumes light and unexpectedly low-key in their timelessness; and, probably most importantly, the Transformers themselves are coherently shaped characters- or vehicles.
There are only three of them with Shatter (both a Harrier Jump Jet and a Plymouth Satellite voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (first a Bell AH-1 SuperCobra, then an AMC Javelin voiced by Justin Theroux) joining Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) in the Earthbound fight. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, always) merely shows up at both the beginning and end sporting what seems to be the same look he had as a cartoon robot/eighteen-wheeler. The absence of any more makes these Decepticons’ threat- and our rooting for Bumblebee- vital, more grounded.
The action refreshingly consists of old-school, (apparently) live-action car chases and robotic mano-a-manos but are so few and far between that almost come off as sparse and at no point whatsoever come anywhere near the ponderous and overlong senselessness of the previous efforts’ overkill.
But, amazingly, the allure of this movie does not come from the promise of over-the-top, thundering action but rather from the genuinely sincere interplay between Stansfield and her newfound CG friend. As previously stated, their scenes not only constitute the bulk of the movie- they are the movie; just exactly how much the audience ends up enjoying this ride will depend on their response and reception to them and their bonding. I bought it and ended up loving it, against all expectations.
If this is the new soul of the franchise, let them bring on as many Transformers as they wish.
Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar