You don't like The Smiths. Okay...
Bumblebee is an intriguing film phenomenon. For over a decade Paramount have been distributing movies from the Transformers franchise to enthusiastic box office response and (with the exception of the first one) unanimous critical contempt. Now with a new screenwriter and director on board comes a prequel that has charmed critics and fans alike. I've finally seen it and the reasons are clear. In contrast to the crass humour and CGI mayhem of recent Transformers entries, this episode is endlessly fun and charming - a generation-spanning treat.
Set in 1987 it centres on Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager crushed by the death of her beloved father and struggling to move on with her life. Her acquisition of a decrepit Volkswagen Beetle provides her with diversion, more so when it turns out to be a massive yellow space-robot in disguise. B-127 aka Bumblebee is (as Transformers fans will need no reminding) a refugee resistance fighter from the planet Cybertron. Recovering from extensive battle injuries, he's as broken in his way as Charlie, so that the two form an unlikely and touching bond. But Bumblebee has been tracked to Earth by a malevolent pair of Decepticons (the Transformers robotic villains with the dead-giveaway name), and his new human friend can only disguise his whereabouts for so long...
Bumblebee is an object lesson in reinvention. The number of things it gets right is striking, beginning with the scaling down of the story from all-out-war to focus on the intimacy of a single friendship. Charlie's bond with Bumblebee is reminiscent of Elliott's with E.T., or, in terms of scale, Hogarth's with the titular alien robot in 1999's The Iron Giant. There may be government forces closing in (another E.T.-style trope) and the promise of slam-bang action before the movie is through, but this is primarily the story of two lost souls helping each other heal. It's funny along with touching, much of the humour stemming from the clunky robot's attempts at being delicate.
The animation is deft and observed in forensic detail, fully realising B as a character; the moment he ruffles Charlie's hair with a great metallic paw is particularly endearing. Nor are the CG elements ever allowed to overwhelm; even at the climax there's never more than three robots on screen and the human-alien bond stays in tight focus, whichever form the mechanical guy is taking.
Steinfeld makes for an appealing human lead - deeply vulnerable, but gutsy and resourceful too (check out her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010's True Grit), with great taste in music. She's backed up by winningly geeky love-interest Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), while WWE wrestler John Cena provides the requisite military bluster as bulky Agent Burns. But this is chiefly B and Charlie's show, one which draws out a surprising degree of unaffected sentiment along with the slapstick. The other most notable stars are Christina Hodson's consistently witty and well-judged script and unfiltered '80s nostalgia. Kids will love the robot comedy and ingenious transformations, while adults of a certain age will revel in the music, movie-references and lo-tech of a pre-internet era.
The film's whole feel is summed up by Bumblebee's choice of battered VW Bug for camouflage - balancing advanced tech and special effects with all that's reassuring and old-school. You know - things like classic visual humour and great dialogue and properly-earned laughs. Old and new are combined in an entertainment package as family-friendly and cynicism-free as the Transformers movies ought to have been all along. It's a joy from start to finish - fresh, exciting and full of heart. Now if all the films turned out like this one, I'd be a fan.
Smiled a lot of the time, laughed the rest, and rooted for our heroes, both human and - eh - autobot.
Memorable Moment: Auto-driving to Tears For Fears.
Ed's Verdict: 8/10. An unexpectedly delightful turn-of-year surprise. These classic toys have finally become the on-screen retro fun they should be.