VOD film review: Bumblebee
James R | On 29, Dec 2019
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena
The words “Transformers movie” and “good” haven’t been uttered many times in the past 12 years, since Michael Bay brought the range of Hasbro toys to the big screen as hulking, live-action figures. With more focus on the grinding, shooting, exploding machinery than the humans, the franchise has been known for its volume more than its depth, with even Shia LaBeouf unable to bring an engaging human heart to deafening, leering melee.
Fast forward 2019 and the prospect of another Transformers sequel doesn’t fill one with hope, despite some of the indisputably impressive visual effects and set pieces Bay has managed to construct over the years. But what began as another entry in the series was rebooted and retooled. With Christina Hodson taking on script duties, the result is Bumblebee, a low-key, moving character drama about Charlie (Steinfeld), a teenager trying to move on from the loss of her father… that just happens to involve giant shape-shifting robots.
Steinfeld is fantastic as the young woman in search of meaning and connection. She finds both in Bumblebee, the Autobot she unexpectedly stumbles upon disguised as a yellow VW Beetle. Having had his vocal faculties removed, he learns to communicate to her through snippets of songs from the radio, while encouraging her to push her own boundaries too.
Inevitably, Bumblebee’s tracking beacon is unwittingly activated and a host of Decepticons descend upon Earth, ready to wipe out the last of their sworn enemies, the Autobots, following the civil war that decimated most of them. And so they trick Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) of military Sector 7 into helping them under the pretence of being a peacekeeping force. An opening sequence set on there home planet teases the kind of action-packed smackdowns that are on the cards, with director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) bringing a real sense of tangible CG figures and every blow they swing.
But the script never loses sight of the film’s roots in Charlie’s emotional journey. Even when transformed, Bumblebee, a Beetle that she picks off a scrap heap, represents a way for her to drive away from her problems. The songs he chooses to communicate anchor their bond in the 1980s period setting, and her own tastes (influenced by those of her dad). With the addition of gently amusing support by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a potential love interest, the result is a surprisingly thoughtful blockbuster that balances intimate human drama and huge Hollywood scale with panache and charm. It’s not just a good Transformers movie – it’s one of the most underrated films of the year.