My friend who likes to laugh at bad movies dragged me to “Transformers” in 2007, but I’ve forgotten everything about that movie and haven’t followed the franchise since. The prequel “Bumblebee” (2018) gives people like me a new entry point into the saga as it tells of an “E.T.”-style friendship between 18-year-old California grease monkey Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and relatively small (and therefore cute) and mute Autobot Bumblebee.
Writer Christina Hodson (the upcoming “Birds of Prey” movie) mostly paints by numbers, although there are a fair number of fun moments brought to life by the animators and Steinfeld reacting to the robot/car. Bumblebee, who is about the height of a one-story house, doesn’t realize his own size so he smashes up Charlie’s family’s living room despite being careful not to. The 1987 setting gives us nostalgic chuckles – people watching “ALF,” listening to the “Breakfast Club” soundtrack, etc.
Yet a very modern maybe-romance plays out between Charlie and boy-next-door Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a nerd trying to work up the nerve to talk to her. He eventually gets swept up in the adventure, but it’s perhaps a one-way attraction. That’s one area where Hodson doesn’t paint by the instructed number.
Director Travis Knight handles this technical film well, as Charlie’s interactions with Bee are seamless. The true stars here are arguably the animators, but as viewers we are long since spoiled by flawless special effects; we’re not amazed anymore, merely appreciative.
There are a handful of boring expositional moments about the Decepticon-Autobot war coming to Earth if the Decepticons get the word out. Actually, most of the non-Bee robot scenes are boring – even the fights. However, I think the filmmakers are slightly hoping to gain new fans with “Bumblebee,” because it’s not an action-driven film.
The thrust is the Charlie-Bumblebee relationship, and Steinfeld – one of the best actors in her age group – sells it. She’s simply a natural on screen; we can watch Charlie brushing her teeth to the beat of the punk-band drums on her Walkman and feel like it’s not a waste of time.
Steinfeld is enough to make “Bumblebee” good, but not great. The movie is too simple to be confusing: Charlie and Bumblebee must hide from the government and stop the Decepticons. But it also manages to be rather dumb here and there. The two Decepticons who aim to track down and kill Bumblebee can turn into aerial vehicles, yet they choose to drive from the East Coast to California.
The Army – our point man for which is John Cena’s Agent Burns — tries to kill Bumblebee on sight, but later teams up with the Decepticons. Hodson hangs a lampshade on some of this; for example, an officer points out that their allies are suspiciously called “Decepticons.” It’s not enough to make people with functioning brains take any of this seriously.
At the same time, the movie is not bad enough to offer unintended laughs, like I and my friend enjoyed at the expense of “Transformers.” And its competence is not enough to draw me into the franchise. That said, “Bumblebee” is what it intends to be: easy-to-watch family viewing, made functional by the computer animators and given some heart by Steinfeld.