“BUMBLEBEE” — 3½ stars — Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, voice of Dylan O. Brien; PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action violence); in general release; running time: 113 minutes
It’s a vicious cycle: Michael Bay makes a “Transformers” film, critics hate it and the movie makes a ton of money anyway. Rinse, cycle, repeat … five times now.
Well, “Bumblebee” has broken the cycle — at least for this critic.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” director Travis Knight has taken the reins to tell a “Transformers” prequel story about one of its most popular characters. Set in the late 1980s — around the time the original toy franchise was at its peak — “Bumblebee” is the story of an alien robot that comes to Earth in the hopes of finding a refuge for his people.
The film opens on Cybertron, a robotic planet that is playing host to an explosive conflict between good robots — the Autobots — and bad robots — the Decepticons. Right away, you notice a difference between “Bumblebee” and the previous “Transformers” movies: the Transformers look like the original toys.
In the mayhem, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, on board since the original 1980s TV cartoon) sends a tiny yellow robot named B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth. His mission: Protect the planet from the Decepticons and prepare for the arrival of the remaining Autobots.
B-127 is followed, however, and in the process of dispatching his foe, he loses his voice synthesizer and compromises his memory banks before transforming into a Volkswagen Beetle and shutting down.
Enter Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a disgruntled teen who listens to The Smiths, works at Hot Dog on a Stick and resents her cheesy stepdad. Since her father's death, Charlie has replaced a passion for diving with a passion for automechanics, and this leads her to the sleeping alien robot, which she eventually dubs Bumblebee.
This all sets up a very “ET”-like story that sees Charlie and Bumblebee forge a surprisingly sweet friendship while dealing with local military (led by a scene-stealing John Cena) and a pair of Decepticons who are trying to hunt down the yellow robot.
“Bumblebee” is pretty much custom-made for children of the 1980s who resent what Michael Bay did to their beloved franchise. Bay still produced this one, but Knight has basically stripped away the mayhem of all the trademark Bay-isms — slow-motion explosions, low-angle camera pans while stoic characters climb out of cars, 24-hour golden hours, etc. (In the spirit of fairness, Bay's “13 Hours” was quite good and didn't overuse these aforementioned techniques.)
Instead, “Bumblebee” focuses on just a few characters, paces itself with action sequences that are easy to follow and replaces the worst of the lowbrow vulgarity and leering sexuality with actual character development — for both the girl and the robot.
Not only is the film set in the ‘80s — stacked with period references and a soundtrack loaded with tunes from the likes of Howard Jones, Steve Winwood and Tears for Fears — but it feels like an ‘80s movie. Charlie’s day-to-day interactions feel like deleted scenes from “The Karate Kid,” and there’s a charming cheesiness to the plot that defies modern cynicism.
It’s actually too bad “Bumblebee” is meant to be a prequel to the other movies. It would be great if they just used this one to reboot the whole series and start over from here.
Rating explained: “Bumblebee” is rated PG-13, mostly for a lot of CGI action mayhem, some sporadic profanity and a bikini poster, but compared with the previous films in the series, this one is practically family-friendly.