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"BUMBLEBEE"
(2018) (Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi/Action: A lonely, grieving teen befriends a sentient robot that's landed on Earth and had its memory core and vocal processor damaged and is now being hunted by other sentient robots that want to destroy it.
PLOT:
It's almost Charlie Watson's (HAILEE STEINFELD) 18th birthday but she's anything but happy and that's mostly due to her father being dead. While her younger brother, Otis (JASON DRUCKER), and their mom, Sally (PAMELA ADLON), seemingly having moved on -- what with her mom having since married Ron (STEPHEN SCHNEIDER) -- Charlie is still racked with grief and misses her dad terribly. It doesn't help that she works a thankless job at the local seaside amusement park -- and doesn't seem to realize that her coworker, Memo (JORGE LENDEBORG JR.), is attracted to her -- and must contend with the usual mean, rich girls at school.

Things change when she's given an old VW Bug for her birthday by an older friend, and when she sets out to work on it in her garage, she's shocked when it suddenly transforms into a sentient Autobot. Little does she know that he's B127 (voice of DYLAN O'BRIEN), a soldier from another world, sent to Earth by his commander, Optimus Prime (voice of PETER CULLEN), to set up a base following the fall of their home planet, Cybertron, to the evil Decepticon robots. Upon arriving on Earth, B127 had a run-in with a local military unit led by Jack Burns (JOHN CENA), but was then attacked by a Decepticon that damaged his vocal processor and memory core to the point that he doesn't know who or what he is.

But he senses a friend in Charlie and vice-versa, and she gives him the name Bumblebee, with the two enjoying each other's company and her teaching Bumblebee how to hide from everyone else back in the guise of the old VW Bug. Little do they know that two Decepticons -- Shatter (voice of ANGELA BASSETT) and Dropkick (voice of JUSTIN THEROUX) -- are searching for Optimus Prime, and when Charlie fixes Bumblebee's radio, that sends a signal the two Decepticons pick up. When they arrive on Earth, they fool Jack and Dr. Powell (JOHN ORTIZ) into believing they're the good guys and Bumblebee is who they need to worry about. But it doesn't take long before all involved realize who the villains and heroes are.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I have to admit that like most critics I was not much of a fan of any of the "Transformers" flicks that have hit theaters over the years. Sure, they were popular among the masses (to the cumulative tune of north of $4 billion worldwide) and if you were looking for nothing more than over-the-top, escapist popcorn fare, you could have done far worse.

That is, in terms of sheer big-screen spectacle and having films notably put all of their mega budgets up on the screen for all to behold. In terms of plot, characters and better direction than that offered by Michael Bay, however, they left a lot to be desired.

Thus, when I heard that a sixth film in the series was headed our way featuring a spin-off character -- no, not the one played by Megan Fox -- I must say I cringed a bit while also rolling my eyes and clearing my throat in the sort of way a parent does when they don't approve of something their teenager has proposed.

Yes, any number of "dis-es" crossed my mind -- disapproval, displeasure, disdain, etc. -- regarding the thought of having to sit through yet another installment of the toys turned into movie characters franchise. But you know what? The early trailer for "Bumblebee" actually not only looked halfway decent, but also sorta, kinda good. Granted, I've fallen prey to the skills of excellent trailer producers before only to discover they somehow made junk appear to be gold, if only for two or three minutes of screen time.

Thus, as the lights went down for our press screening, I prepared myself for an onslaught of visual effects all while wondering if maybe, somehow, against the odds and all common sense and luck, those involved actually made a good "Transformers" movie. Well, dear reader, having now sat through the just shy of two-hour offering, I can say without hesitation that this is the best entry in the series so far. And not only that, it's a pretty good film on its own.

That said, as it begins with a big screen spectacle of an action sequence featuring Autobots and Decepticons battling it out on Cybertron, I had the sinking feeling of "Oh well, here we go again." Thankfully, that's just the setup for what's to come, and that's a prequel to the original 2007 film and one where B127 (the yet-to-be-nicknamed title character) is ordered by Optimus Prime to head to Earth to set up a base for their kind to regroup.

And thus our spunky "little" friend (in comparison to the rest of his kind) arrives on Earth in 1987 (cue up the great soundtrack from that era). There, he has a bad run-in with some U.S. military types (led by John Cena), and even worse one with a Decepticon who's followed him there, and has his vocal processor and memory core damaged before transforming into an old yellow VW bug just as his systems shut down.

We're then introduced to nearly 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) who's unhappy at home (due to still being sad about her dad having died sometime in the past and her mom -- Pamela Adlon -- and younger brother -- Jason Drucker -- seemingly having moved on, what with a new dad -- Stephen Schneider -- being in the house). She has the same reaction at the seaside amusement park where she works and must contend with mean girl taunting.

Not having her own set of wheels, she's overjoyed when an older friend lets her have an old clunker if she can get it started. Well, you guessed it, she's picked an old yellow Beetle and when she gets it back home and rolls beneath it for some work, she's shocked when it transforms into a sentient robot. But since he's more scared of her than vice-versa, she shows compassion and ends up with a friend. Albeit one who has no idea who or what he is.

With both in need of a buddy, they find each other and those moments are sweet and heartwarming, with some decent comedy thrown in for good measure. But the plot -- penned by Christina Hodson as the first female screenwriter for the series -- beckons, and thus not only does the military want to find this extraterrestrial intruder, but so do two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) who think they can get to Optimus Prime through our newly named Bumblebee.

Lots of action ensues, but that's peppered with characters we like, a solid script and just the right mix of various cinematic elements that make films appealing and entertaining to the masses. None of which should come as a surprise considering that director Travis Knight ("Kubo and the Two Strings") is behind the camera, and most every note and film beat is hit with just the right touch.

What really makes it all work is that we actually care about our titular Transformer, his human friend, and their unique bond. While the effects are good across the board, the ones you'll remember the most are seemingly the simplest, Bumblebee's eyes. Despite the mechanical nature of them, Knight and his effects team give the character a great deal of personality through those peepers, and if you don't feel compassion for the 'bot and his friendship with Charlie, well, there's probably no hope for you and humanity.

I did and enjoyed every moment of the offering. Is it the modern day equivalent of "E.T." as some have stated? No, but it's not trying to be that same sort of tale, although there are some obvious similarities. If anything, and if they're going to keep cranking out these "Transformers" movies, it's hopefully a sign of more good things to come. "Bumblebee" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 17, 2018 / Posted December 21, 2018


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