Don’t be fooled by the wallow in ’80s nostalgia — music, fashion, the bad TV. It’s just naked pandering to its “I grew UP with ‘Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye!” first-gen fans.
What the “Bumblebee” reboot of “Transformers” really offers is what the TV show that spawned it had going for it — childish innocence. It’s a 12-and-under action picture, PG-13 or not, with robot-on-robot violence, simple jokes, a heaping helping of cute, cornball and unreal “liquidation” deaths.
What screenwriter Christina Hodson delivers is an appealing heroine, an adorably vulnerable robot, all alone among the Mean Old Earthlings, and something this insanely successful but ever-so-empty-headed franchise has never had — charm.
She’s concocted a prequel — “How Bumblebee Lost his Voice” — that rigidly adheres to the cars-turn-to-robots-and-befriend-humans formula. She wrings a few laughs out of sight gags and knowing ’80s references — “ALF! ‘Hey WILLY!'”
And while “Bumblebee” never achieves the antic, self-mocking giddiness of the first 45 minutes of that first “Transformers” film, it’s at least relatively painless — more than you could say for the Mark Wahlberg years.
Animation veteran turned feature director Travis Knight gives the transformations a tactile reality and the epic robot brawls a visual coherence that Michael Bay (still a producer) never did.
The story begins on Cybertron, just as the Autobots Rebellion is failing. Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sends B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) from the crumbling planet (another Krypton/Atlantis collapse) to Earth, an advance scout for the base Prime plans to use to stage the rebels’ comeback.
But B-127 crashes into the middle of an Army training exercise being run by Agent Burns (John Cena, funny), and in the ensuing mayhem, is smashed up by a pursuing Decepticon. No more voice.
B-127 lays low as a vintage VW Beetle, which is how grease-monkey teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) finds him. She gets the VW running at Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) boatyard, and drives it all the way home without knowing she’s been wrenching a robot.
He had a beehive in his trunk, so she gives the mute machine, given to cowering in the corner (battle fatigue), his name.
But the Decepticons are on his trail, and they enlist an enthusiastic scientist (John Ortiz) and the reluctant US military (Burns/Cena) in the hunt.
Angela Bassett voices Shatter, the evil genius of Team Decepticon, the one who purrs, “Take me to your leader.” Burns isn’t hearing it.
“They call themselves DECEPTICONS! That doesn’t set off any RED FLAGS?”
The line should be “RAISE any RED FLAGS” or “set off any ALARMS?” But never mind.
Charlie, a former competitive diver who lost her dad a few years before, has to protect Bumblebee, get over her phobia about diving, placate her mom (Pamela Adlon, wasted in this) and maybe notice the cute boy next door (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., dull) who has a crush on her which he’s too nerdy/shy to act on.
The girl-robot bonding stuff is sweet…ish. Charlie is the one who makes Bumblebee talk via taped music, which he learns to appreciate via her passion for The Smiths, Sammy Hagar, Rick Astley and “The Breakfast Club.”
The romance is chaste, strictly a non-starter, and perhaps the clearest sign that they’re taking this franchise back to little kids who buy the toys — and NOT the people who keep such toys in their original packaging. No hint of Megan Fox/Shia LaBeouf heat, no leering, lingering shots of cleavage, very little swearing.
The violence is just rough enough, with humans succumbing in explosions of goo.
“I like the way they POP,” Decepticon Shatter (Justin Theroux) jokes.
There’s little that could be called adult in either the humor (muted, limited) or situations. So of the three popcorn pictures this holiday season presents, “Bumblebee” stands out as the most infantile. Girl-powered or not, it’s not really about anything, any more than “Spider-Man/Spider-Verse” or “Aquaman.”
But I dare say if I was 11 I’d think it was two hours well-spent. I’d want the toys, and I’d definitely break the seal on the packaging.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
CastL Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, the voice of Peter Cullen
Credits: Directed by Travis Knight, script by Christina Hodson. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:53