An all-spark invigoration | Daily News

An all-spark invigoration

A few franchises have achieved the target of making a good film to match its predecessor just as ‘Transformers’ has. ‘Bumblebee’ is the fifth installment in the Michael Bay-produced universe, and the first not directed by him.

Instead, Travis Knight (known for the brilliant ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’) takes over the director’s chair and finds the honeysuckle sweet spot in a John Hughes/Steven Spielberg-inspired coming-of-age blockbuster.

This iteration of Transformers isn’t a reboot, rather a prequel. Knight’s film opens with a large-scale battle on Cybertron, as Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) hold off the ensuing Decepticon attack. When all seems lost, Optimus Prime orders Bumblebee to board an escape pod to Earth where he will be tasked with setting up a base and awaiting Prime’s arrival. Barring the cacophony and sheen of the initial battle, ‘Bumblebee’ is a rather quiet and intimate film. Rather than depending upon sex and testosterone as narrative engines, Knight’s film prefers to explore the relationship between a girl and her yellow beetle.

Bumblebee’s escape pod, later, comes crashing down to Earth, interrupting a training exercise led by Agent Burns (John Cena). Cena plays your typical foolhardy military commander, who’d rather blow up stuff and ask questions later.

Meanwhile, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is just about to turn 18 and desperately wants a car. She’s mourning the loss of her dad and trying to figure out her place in life when she discovers an abandoned VW Bug at the junkyard. Charlie manages to get the car running again, only to learn that it’s the long-dormant B-127 (now nicknamed Bumblebee). Charlie and Bumblebee bond over their adventures together.

The film is predictably heavy on the retro sauce – from cassette desks to corn dogs, Cray supercomputers and Breakfast Club snippets. And Charlie’s coming of age is a little too automated to deliver a full emotional pay-off. But the action sequences are quirky, agile and in a couple of cases, when Bumblebee trashes the family home and a high-school rivals’ car, refreshingly open to the idea small-scale destruction can be just as satisfying. Knight keeps up a welcome self-awareness throughout; after the Decepticons link up all earthly communications to form an unprecedented and yet strangely familiar global network, one military bigwig comments that perhaps their name should have been a “red flag”.

Travis Knight’s experience as an animation director is evident here. Knight previously made the brilliant ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. Altogether less cynical and garish in its world view, Bumblebee worships at the altar of Steven Spielberg and John Hughes, favouring peppy wholesomeness and a reduced scale of events that doesn’t rely on the graphic levelling of cities for thrills. With ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Travis Knight at the helm, the action is staged with pleasing, straightforward clarity. For veteran Transformers buffs, the return to the Gen-1 designs is a most welcome sight to behold as are the cameos from several fan-favourites absent from Bay’s films.

Yet for all its virtues, there’s also a sense of a little-too-late hanging over everything. If Bumblebee had been the first live-action Transformers out of the gate, we’d probably still be singing its praises today. But Christina Hodson’s screenplay, while giving Hailee Steinfeld a wonderfully plucky heroine role, is teeming with so many familiar human/robot-bonding beats, at times it resembles a shameless remake of Brad Bird’s superior The Iron Giant. And if you’re allergic to on-the-nose, overly calculated nostalgia (The Smiths needle-drops, The Breakfast Club nods, etc.), Bumblebee is guilty as charged.

A kind of period piece, Knight’s film firmly establishes us in the ‘80s. The soundtrack is filled with goodies from ‘The Smiths and Simple Minds’, while Motorhead t-shirts and Mr. T cereal add authenticity. Bumblebee also displays a playful visual language. Knight, with his use of Dutch angles and visual humor, gives the film a unique spontaneity and character. What gives this episode some buzz, though, is Steinfeld’s livewire and affecting performance as the mixed-up teenager who befriends the Volkswagen. Like Dorothy with the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, she proves to her metallic friend that he can still have feelings even if he doesn’t have a heart.

Thanks to the competent and effortful work by director Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson, ‘Bumblebee’ is a fun campy ride that doesn’t just add an invigorating spark to the ‘Transformers’ franchise, but it also proves that there truly is more than meets the eye.


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