Can a big yellow insect save a broken franchise? Bumblee begins, dispiritingly, with a CG fight scene that could have been exported straight from any one of the last five Transformers outings: Autobots and Deceptacons battling it out on a remote planet, hulking pieces of hardware scraping against each other like bad gears on a garbage truck.
But it’s a bait and switch, or something like that, because director Travis Knight actually has something much better and more human in store — tossing off the hectic heavy-metal nonsense of Michael Bay’s original vision and essentially rebooting it as a buddy comedy between an intergalactic robot and a scrappy teen (Hailee Steinfeld), ringed in sweet ‘80s nostalgia.
It’s 1987 somewhere near San Francisco, and Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson is an adorable tomboy (do the movies allow for any other kind?) who spends most of her time working on broken-down cars in the family garage and mourning the still-raw loss of her father. Her mother (Better Things’ great Pamela Adlon) wants to her to smile and stop sulking, which is not something Charlie’s summer job at Hot Dog on a Stick — or the rusty scooter she has to use for transportation — is probably going to help her do.
Enter an unassuming, butter-colored Volkswagen Bug; broken down and abandoned in a local scrapyard, it intrigues Charlie enough that she takes it home to repair, and discovers that “it” is an Autobot. He can’t speak after having his voice software torn out, but he can convey anthropomorphic charm through bleeps and bloops and creaky alloid gestures. And he is oddly endearing; like a giant waspy cousin to Pixar’s Wall-E.
In the vein of last year’s Ready Player One, Bumblebee mines retro culture shamelessly, but Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) is smart about it, too; whether it’s a well-worn VHS copy of The Breakfast Club or a soundtrack stacked with Rick Astley, the Smiths, and LL Cool J, he infuses the movie with the decade’s most beloved touchstones in ways that feel both familiar and somehow fresh. (Not least because it puts a relatable, capable teenage girl at the center of a franchise that has hardly deigned to use them as more than decorative parsley until now.)
The ’80s are also everywhere in the film’s sensibility, which has the simple linear pleasures of old-school action-adventures like War Games, Short Circuit, or Back to the Future, and the young romance of classic John Hughes (Love, Simon’s Jorge Lendeborg Jr. supplies the boy-next-door romance).
John Cena is top billed, and though his brick-jawed military man doesn’t actually get many scenes, he does get a disproportionate share of the script’s best lines. He gives good muscle, but Bumblebee brings something even more important — and actually transforming — to the series: a sense of humor, and a heart. B+