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REVIEW: ‘Bumblebee’ brings Transformers franchise back to life

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New Transformers film replaces special effects pyrotechnics with a large beating heart

The 80’s are alive and well in Bumblebee, the latest entry in the blockbuster Transformers series. The origin story of the most lovable yellow robot ever trades in special effects pyrotechnics for a human narrative, very reminiscent of early films like E.T and Short Circuit.

The movie arrives on the heels of a string of successful ventures from director Michael Bay. Bay is an expert at visual effects but tends to revel in the excess of head-numbing action over coherence. This time around, Bay has retreated into a producer’s role and director Travis Knight brings everything back to center in the prequel, which places the simple but sweet story of girl meets robot front and center.Photos: Paramount

The opening of film quickly harkens back to the Transformers vibe many of us grew up with in the 80’s. In a distant planet, a war between the Decepticons and Autobots is raging. During this fight, a sprightly yellow warrior B-127 is selected by Optimus Prime to go into hiding on Earth and establish a solid base there, where the remaining Autobots will regroup once the dust settles.

After crash landing on Earth, B-127 receives a very unfriendly welcome from military lieutenant Agent Burns (John Cena) who attempts to immediately destroy the Autobot by means of firepower. When two escaped Decepticons join the brawl, they do everything but wreck the yellow hero, removing his voice box and shattering his memory. Broken and battered B-127 transforms into a VW Beetle before shutting down.

Cut to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teen struggling to find her way to adulthood in a suburb outside San Francisco. She bears a special affinity for cars, much like her late father, who passed away unexpectedly and whose presence remains a persistent theme throughout the movie. Charlie falls in love with a yellow VW Beetle at a nearby junkyard and manages to miraculously get it running. When the car turns out to be something far more than she realized, an unexpected friendship begins as Charlie tries to protect her new friend from the cruelty of the real world.

What plays out for the most part in the remaining runtime is the extraordinary bond that develops between Charlie and Bumblebee—as she affectionately names him (“The color suits you” she gushes). Unable to talk, many of the exchanges between the two are made through music, which becomes another strong component during the film (a heartfelt moment set to Unchained Melody may require several tissues). Travis Knight carefully attributes the most human-like qualities and expressions to the gentle giant, proving him to be an immensely likeable protagonist. Steinfeld is excellent as well, bringing depth and gravitas to her teenager in turmoil, and the friendship between them feels genuine. It’s this swelling heart that provides the distinct axis on which Bumblebee turns.

The movie stumbles a bit in other places. Apart from an admirable turn from the villainous Cena, the supporting cast lacks the depth of even their robot counterparts. Charlie’s family is adequate but bland, and a faux love interest (Jorge Lendeborg) really lacks conviction. These characters tend to bog down a bit of the middle act and cause things to drag.

Bumblebee roars back for an action packed climax of robot carnage that fans of the series will likely appreciate. These action pieces are finely executed, though they lack a bit of the visual appeal and extravagance of Michael Bay’s hand. That said, Bumblebee is still terrific family entertainment. It offers viewers a tempered and textured experience consisting of thrills, nostalgia and genuine sentiment. In the case of Bumblebee there truly is more here than meets the eye.


Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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Photos: Paramount