By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
So, I was ready to give the Transformers franchise another shot. I’m very admittedly not part of the target demo for these movies (guys… this premise is dumb. Alien robots that coincidentally transform into, apparently moonshot-odds coincidentally, branded human cars is about as dumb as a premise gets). However, that rotten tomatoes score (93%!) and that trailer, guys…
Brings an (iron) giant tear to the eye.
The cutesy-wutesiest homicidal robot car of them all, Bumblebee, crash lands in 1987, loses his memory, and transforms into the cutesy-wutesiest movie car, yes, a yellow VW bug. When Lindsay Loh-excuse me, Hailee Steinfeld finds it and soon after the giant homicidal but totally cute and helpless robot inside it, cutesy-wutesy hijinks ensue, plus the Decepticons come and slaughter a lot of people and need to be stopped in order to save the world. You know, the usual.
Okay, respect where respect is due. Laika and Kubo‘s Travis Knight graduates to big-budget studio filmmaking by largely succeeding in adding at least a smidge of heart and childlike whimsy to a franchise that began as a typical Michael Bay explosion-filled late-90s music video style orgy full of everything but. That’s due in large part to Hailee Steinfeld’s totally committed lead performance. She, unlike Shia and Fox before her, clearly is happy enough being here and acting across from a tennis ball- she already has her Oscar nom, after all.
Would still like to see a little more *ahem* grit out of her choices.
Knight also cures another ill of the franchise- making all the clinking, clanking, constantly in motion action legible and physically believable. This isn’t the magic eye migraine machine that even the best of Bay’s iterations always devolved into. Here’s hoping Knight goes back to making Laika-level classics, but you can’t blame the man for wanting to get a real box office success under his belt, either (although how successful Bumblebee ends up being this crowded holiday season is still an open question).
The way Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson try to infuse heart into the franchise is probably the most logical way to do so- tug on those nostalgia strings by overtly and symbolically referencing childhood touchstones of alien and robot + child contact, namely E.T. and The Iron Giant. I’m actually pretty much okay with this approach; I mean, just look at how many movies and TV shows are trying to tap that Spielberg magic these days and nobody’s really all that mad at Stranger Things for being derivative.
Still, the strings being pulled here are fairly obvious (I mean, a VW bug!), and when coupled with the non-stop memory baiting of the soundtrack and the scenester wardrobing, it all comes off as artificial in a way that some of the other, shaggier referential properties these days more successfully avoid.
Bumblebee is surprising or perhaps unsurprisingly violent. For a film purportedly for kids (as, I reiterate, a movie about alien robot car toys probably should be), there’s a whole lot of gruesome robot dismemberment and splashy “popping” of humans in this thing. You’d think that’d be the one thing from the Bay movies safely left behind in a purportedly more heart-tugging Transformers flick, but you’d be wrong.
No lessons learned he-ah.
In the end, between the visual and emotional references, the cheesy, also derivative (radical!) humor, and the loud, blaring violence, you have a film whose paint by numbers approach is both glaringly obvious and never quite comes together into a satisfying whole. Perhaps I’m a spoilsport, but if you’re trying to sell me feels for your alien robot car toy movie, you’d better bring it better than this.
Bumblebee may be wearing a giant (iron) new suit, but ultimately it’s the same old Transformers franchise that you already either love or hate.
Bumblebee (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every nostalgic music drop
Take a Drink: for every nostalgic wardrobe change of Charlie’s
Take a Drink: for every nostalgic callback to better, more beloved films
Take a Drink: for every transformation into a nostalgic yellow VW Bug or, yes, Camaro
Do a Shot: every time a human gets full-on murdered (turned to clear gloop instead of a bloody mist)