Friday, December 21, 2018

Bumblebee - Review

No one needed, or really wanted, a Bumblebee prequel when it was announced back in 2016. The Transformers series had long been the butt of the joke when it came to big budget Hollywood franchises, even if they continually made piles of money, and a sixth entry was appealing to very few. But as the development progressed and Paramount brought in talented people to write and direct their prequel, anticipation began to mount. The final product is not only worthy of existence, but it is actually good and remarkably exciting.

On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee the Autobot seeks refuge in a junkyard in a small California beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the brink of turning 18 years old and trying to find her place in the world, soon discovers the battle-scarred and broken Bumblebee. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns that this is no ordinary yellow Volkswagen.

As if escaping the shadow of Michael Bay’s poor storytelling was all the Transformers franchise needed, Bumblebee gets to what this bloated series should’ve been from the start. It is by no means a revolutionary narrative, a troubled teenager’s life is altered by an unlikely encounter with an alien visitor has been time and time again throughout the years, but by shrinking the scale down it allows this film to excel where past entries have utterly failed. 

Getting a director who can properly manage the hope and wonder that the story requires is the first step, and Travis Knight certainly fits the bill. Knight only has one prior directing credit, but he has been influential at Laika Animation, a studio that specializes in heartwarming, beautiful coming of age stories. In a way, Bumblebee feels like an extension of his work at Laika, and opens up so many avenues for the future of the Transformers franchise.

Knight is paired with a screenwriter with a fairly limited resume as well, and yet Christina Hodson has done precisely what was needed for Bumblebee to be a success. Even grading on a fairly low bar, Hodson and Knight have crafted a fun film that can be enjoyed by everyone, far removed from the bombastic stylings of the first five films.

Of course, there are still quite a bit of visual effects, the title character is a sixteen-foot-tall robot that transforms into a yellow Volkswagen Beetle after all, but the visual vomit of Bay is long gone. The film opens with a small introduction to Cybertron and the war that wages between the Autobots and Decepticons, which is truly an awesome cold open, but remains the only time in which more than three hulking robots share the screen at the same time. Logically, without the visual noise of countless unnamed Autobots or Decepticons fighting, everything settles down and allows for some of the excellent effects to shine through. 

Bumblebee breathes new life into a dying franchise, and provides for some intrigue and anticipation as the filmmakers and studio move from here. The smaller scale does wonders for the story and the characters in play, giving the film a bit of depth rather than the commercialized mess that was commonplace before. The relationship between Bumblebee and Hailee Steinfeld’s character is genuine, and seeing them have this adventure together is enough to satisfy the biggest naysayers, even without the rest of the story elements that work. Bumblebee may not retroactively save the franchise, but it’s a start to getting back on the right track. 

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