Movie review: Bumblebee centres on a coming-of-age story

Movie still from the film Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld.
Movie still from the film Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld.PHOTO: UIP

Bumblebee (PG13)

Action science-fiction

114 minutes/Opens Dec 20/2.5 stars


The story: In this prequel to the Transformers film series (2007-2017), a scout, B-127, is sent from Cybertron to Earth to create a refuge for the rebel Autobots, who are losing their war against the Decepticons. On Earth, it is the 1980s, and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the damaged B-127, now in the shape of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle she nicknames Bumblebee.

The sixth instalment in the Transformers movie series is the best yet, but that is not saying very much because of the low bar set by the other five.

It is the best because more so than in the other films, this is centred on a human, more specifically, a young woman and her coming-of-age story.

There is a lot here to like in this version of the Pete's Dragon template - weak kid meets a powerful guardian who must stay hidden from pesky adults - but there is too much here that is cookie-cutter, too many ideas pressed from the same 1980s Stranger Things-E.T.-Weird Science mould.

One particularly groan-worthy example: There are textbook high school mean girls here, the blonde and popular kind, who exist only to toss catty remarks at Charlie (Steinfeld) in a scene so contrived and derivative it would not have made the cut of a poor Saved By The Bell (1989-1993) episode.

Director Travis Knight (the excellent stop-motion animation Kubo And The Two Strings, 2016) takes over from the helmer of the first five films, Michael "camera shake" Bay. Knight, thankfully, knows how to tell a story without resorting to hundreds of one-second edits and unlike Bay, mounts his cameras on stands, not rubber bungees.

Like the Spider-Man film in cinemas this week, this sweeter, less war-heavy version of the Transformers story is supposed to be more kid-friendly.

Yes, there is bot-on-bot violence here - quite a lot, in fact - but where Bay would have characters running, diving and jumping for their lives in between the battles, Knight's story has Charlie the car nerd trying to find out who she is in the midst of family upheaval.

There is an interesting study in contrasts in the Spider-Man film and this one. In one scene, the naive Bumblebee - in almost every way a bull in a china shop - escapes Charlie's garage and into the living room. Much physical comedy ensues as furniture shatters.

In the Spider-Man movie, there would have been layers which would have made it funnier and also speak to character, while moving the story forward. But here, the laughs are assumed because televisions are smashed and vases are toppled while a "funny" soundtrack plays.  

If this is what passes for a kids film, then it is just not enough.