***½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C
starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz
written by Christina Hodson
directed by Travis Knight
by Walter Chaw Travis Knight's Bumblebee is a tone-perfect amalgamation of The Love Bug and The Iron Giant. It is, in other words, both a throwback summer programmer (perhaps mistakenly released during the Christmas season) and a sophisticated parable about coming of age in a divided America. It casts Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie, a gearhead who loves her car more than she's interested in fielding the advances of the awkward neighbour kid pining after her. And then it has her dealing with the loss of a parent as she finds her way through an already-difficult period in a young person's development. It wisely hires Knight, who at Laika Studios produced the unexpectedly sensitive and introspective ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings (the latter of which he directed), and screenwriter Christina Hodson (the woman entrusted with upcoming films about Harley Quinn and Batgirl), with uncredited contributions from Kelly Fremon Craig, writer-director of the sensitive The Edge of Seventeen, which also starred Steinfeld. In placing gifted, effortlessly diverse people before and behind the camera and then watching as the lingering hostility around the misogynistic, racist, xenophobic Michael Bay cock operas that have made the Transformers franchise to this point disgusting and toxic just melt away, Bumblebee becomes a prototype for the modern reboot. It's amazing how the right choices among topline talent make all the work of not only avoiding offense, but also providing uplift, seem a magical side-effect rather than some laborious and arcane undertaking. (It's the difference, for instance, between Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.) Knight's Bumblebee is the Transformers franchise as it should have been from the start: on the one hand a nostalgic, sometimes exciting, often hilarious story about the coming to earth of sentient machines engaged in perpetual war who can camouflage themselves as terrestrial vehicles and appliances--and on the other, a clever parable about how the toys (and cars) we grow up with sometimes provide the guardrails for how we view accountability as we get older. By the end of Bumblebee, the girl and her 'bot arrive at the mature--and, more importantly, healthy--decision to move on from each other. Another franchise after The Last Jedi making the daring suggestion that living in the past is death.
Her Charlie is plucky without being irritating; confident without being cold; and in the film's best sequence, as she's driving triumphantly away from the junkyard in her "deathtrap" VW Bug, she's able to convey an absolutely winning innocence to go along with all that (true) grit. It helps that Knight uses his '80s-specific needle-drops with the wisdom of someone who actually came of age in the decade. Whether "Higher Love" for the repair montage to help cement Charlie's relationship with her car, The Smith's "Girlfriend in a Coma" to pay off a surprisingly effective emotional moment later on, or even Bon Jovi's "Runaway" to precisely formulate the character of a mean-girl bully--all of it feels pitch-perfect. Not to put too fine a point on it, but compare it against the tone-deaf pandering of Captain Marvel's soundtrack for an example of how to do it right vs. how to do it by committee and CPA. After using the aforementioned The Smiths' song as a punchline when Bumblebee rejects it as a listening option, Knight returns to it to express the robot's fear that anything might happen to Charlie. It's not just the lyrics that speak here, it's the idea that without parsing Morrissey's intentions too deeply, this machine has been paying attention to Charlie and understands, at a crucial moment, how to express concern for her in precisely the way she will immediately respond to it. I linger on this because the track off the group's "Strangeways, Here We Come" isn't the first that comes to mind when one thinks of the band, nor even the album. It's a song chosen for its ironic lightness, that takes down the pretension of the lyrics and then later honours the undercurrent of desperation all the same. Knight uses these songs as not just a portal for nostalgia, but character development as well. There's really no other reason to dig up Duran Duran's "Save a Prayer" unless it speaks specifically to Charlie's loss and her fulfillment of a particular dream she shared with her dad, although it's not obvious--not unless you know the song.
The Bug is, of course, alien terminator bot Bumblebee, a lieutenant in the army of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sent ahead to Earth to make sure it's a safe retreat for the rest of his compatriots upon getting their butts kicked on homeworld Cybertron. The bad guy Decepticons, who have a better plan for winning wars by assuming the shapes of airplanes and bugs and stuff, put in an appearance, tricking the United States into handing over the keys to their primitive tracking systems. John Cena plays the representative bellicose Earthling who learns by the end to see the error of his ways--but not before both sides of the Transformer war are summoned to this new battlefield, Earth. A fresh start, one hopes, rather than a prequel to the Bay films, Bumblebee spends most of its time with Charlie using Bumblebee as her two-ton Woody doll, transferring her grief and desire for both understanding and a mentor into the metal chassis of this behemoth that's only animate when she needs it to be...at least at first. It's a familiar relationship mined in any number of "boy and his dog/horse/robot" movies, rejuvenated by girl Charlie and by setting it during that one summer where we all begin to move on from the things of childhood. Memo (Jorge Lendenborg Jr.), the cute Dominican kid who lives on her block, is a lovely construct, too: shy, courageous, and willing to follow Charlie's lead on the relationship front.
Nothing about Bumblebee feels particularly forced. Knight even finds a role for Charlie to fulfill during its boss fight. Credit Knight again for his background in stop-motion animation for appreciating that it's the small, almost unnoticed grace notes in the middle of the chaos that will be remembered long after the current wave of technology is obsolete. The miscegenation of the central pair is effortless, while the casual misogyny of stepdad Ron's well-intended gift of a book urging young women to smile more is played with affection and room for growth for this character rather than casting him as stock villain. What I'm saying is that Bumblebee is about a great many things without bogging itself down in didacticism and soapbox proclamations. It is what it is because the talent behind the camera is what it is, and therein lies a roadmap for progress. Bumblebee is in good company with the likes of not only The Iron Giant, naturally, but also foundational works like WarGames and E.T.. It's one of the great surprises of this era in American kaiju dominated by city-levelling superheroes who show up occasionally as literal mechas and the little girls who ride them. If ever there was a time for a feature-length Peni Parker film, we're in it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Adverts for Universal Studios, Hasbro, and a cartoon called "BotBot" (I think) cue up on startup of the Paramount Blu-ray. A "Sector 7 Archive" reveals itself to contain two items: "Agent Burns: Welcome to Sector 7" and "Sector 7 Adventures: The Battle at Half Dome." The first is a mock recruitment video (1 min.) featuring John Cena (who still, to my eye, looks like an inflated Matt Damon), the second a ten-minute "animated" thing featuring the heroes of human military agency Sector 7 as they encounter the cassette-player Decepticon, Soundwave. I say "animated" because it's essentially static comic-book frames jiggled up and down. Exciting? No. Important? No. Relevant to the film in some way? It does not appear to be. Too long? It is too long, yes. "Deleted and Extended Scenes" comprise nine short clips running about 19 minutes altogether. An extension of the prologue more closely aligns Bumblebee with First Blood-era John Rambo, while an energetic getting-to-work sequence shows even more of Knight's affinity for '80s-set flicks; when Charlie drops her snotty little brother off at karate, it almost made me cry. (Knight also observes the leg warmers and unfortunate haircuts on a couple of Charlie's Corndog Hut co-workers.) These scenes, for what it's worth, highlight the picture's relationship with Sixteen Candles--which is there in the film, but laudably downplayed. I liked seeing Charlie and her bro bond over washing the car, not to mention a bit where Memo guesses that they're in a Transformers movie. I guess I just appreciate the vibe of this film and would happily watch a much longer version full of gratuitous slice-of-life stuff. Additionally, there's some King Kong/Fay Wray physical interaction between Charlie and Bumblebee that looks not great, and I'm not sure a more finished effects presentation would improve it significantly. Fans will surely be happy to see an elision in which various machines are animated by Transformers magic, resulting in mayhem at Charlie's house, but I appreciate that Knight chose the greater part of valour.
"Outtakes" consists of five clips, mostly of Cena ad-libbing. At approximately 10 minutes in length, it's...interminable. "Bee Vision: The Transformers Robots of Cybertron" (4 mins.) is the opening battle with stats for each of the robots as they appear on screen. It's sort of like if you saw Bumblebee in the theatre with a couple of dudes sitting behind you whispering excitedly whenever one of their favourite toys appeared on-screen...but in special features form. "Bringing Bumblebee to the Big Screen" is the umbrella heading for five standard-practice making-of featurettes. Talking heads opine about how much they liked the robot and making the movie and whatnot. There's nothing in here of real value--in fact, most of it is an elaborate recap of the plot, beat-for-beat. To what end? You tell me. These segments range from four to ten minutes in length, with an effervescent Hodson saying how invested she was in a girl going on an adventure and the revelation that Steinfeld was the first and only person to whom they offered the role of Charlie being among the few highlights. A snippet of B-roll in which Steinfeld asks Knight where the robot's eyes are speaks to her instincts as a reactive performer. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine this movie without her. Other tidbits of interest include some stuff about the toys and the cartoons that came before, some lightweight material on the visual effects, and what must be at least a hundred people testifying to the title character's "heart." Saving the best for last, "California Cruisin'" (20 mins.) sees Knight reflecting on how much he's studied and internalized the great coming-of-age stories of the '80s. Though already crystal clear in every frame of the film, it's nice to have it articulated by someone who appears to be the right age to know what he's talking about. With the younger on-screen talent referring to the '80s as "wholesome," I'm thrilled that Knight and Hodson seem to know better. A lot of '80s coming-of-age films were aggressively vile and deeply problematic--even at the time. The choice of Bumblebee to not be that speaks more to awareness than to ignorance. The piece also goes deep on the costuming and sets--those posters on the wall and all the Elvis Costello T-shirts. It's so very.
Bumblebee's 1.78:1, 1080p transfer boasts an extremely pleasing level of clarity, with detailed shadows as well. Colours are the main attraction here, however--the opening battle on Cybertron is an explosion of rich hues resembling nothing so much as a beautiful fireworks display. Though the film was shot digitally, the daytime exteriors demonstrate a sort of indefinable '80s patina that impresses, while the black levels are free of crush. The image is crisp, vibrant and a touch hyper-real in exactly the right way. An attendant Dolby Atmos track, which downmixes to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD on discrete systems, fills the soundstage with an aural payload of information. The crunching of trees during Bumblebee's early escape from a forest had me peeking over my shoulder like a rube. All those Eighties hits? Never better. And the filmmakers do not shy away from the franchise's love of bass. Besides the usual DVD and digital copies of the film, the packaging contains a 12-page comic book that appears to be the prequel to the animated comic book on the BD proper. A 4K Ultra HD release is available separately.
114 minutes; PG-13; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, Portuguese DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount