Paramount hired “Kubo and the Two Strings” director Travis Knight to helm the ’80s-set “Bumblebee” prequel, with a script penned by Christina Hodson. What Hodson and Knight bring to the film — which was previously missing from the franchise — is heart, honing in on the relationships and emotional connections that actually make us care about the talking robot cars from outer space.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie, a music-obsessed 18-year-old who wakes up to the Smiths and has quite the enviable collection of band T-shirts. She’s mourning the loss of her father, pouring herself into working on his classic car. All she wants is her own set of wheels, so when a dusty yellow VW Beetle shows up at the junkyard, she finagles a way to take it home. Much to her surprise, the little beater morphs into a scared, quivering, giant robot, whom she dubs Bumblebee.
Bumblebee is initially voiced by Dylan O’Brien, a wee Transformer sent by the Autobot resistance to protect Earth from the Decepticons. During an ugly clash, his vocal machinery is damaged, so Charlie gives him his voice back with an AM/FM radio he learns to use for communication. All audiences need to know about the context of the Autobot/Decepticon war that’s landed Bumblebee here: Two Decepticons in the form of muscle cars land on Earth to destroy him, and in doing so, they infiltrate the U.S. Army’s resources. They’re hoping to find the rest of the Autobots, and presumably, at some point, plunder Earth for resources.
It’s during the melee that Charlie truly comes into her own. She’s been distanced from her family, including her mother (Pamela Adlon) and stepdad (Stephen Schneider), distraught over the sudden loss of her father. Fighting to protect Bumblebee is how she learns to step into her power, take responsibility and accept the consequences.
The ’80s era of “Bumblebee” harkens back to the true origin of the Transformers as Saturday morning cartoons. Everyone’s favorite ’80s tunes play an important role in the film, and Hodson’s script is self-consciously designed as a classic John Hughes sendup. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. vamps awkwardly as Charlie’s nerdy love interest, Memo. But several of the best lines come with a bit too big of a wink at the teen movie formula, which lends to a sense of irony that lingers around the edges of the otherwise deeply sincere film.
The heart of “Bumblebee” is Bumblebee itself, and he’s the farthest thing from ironic. The giant yellow bot is just a cuddly creature. His blue eyes widen innocently, and he leans his massive head in for a cuddle. He’s a giant golden retriever puppy, unaware of his massive size, sheepish, guilty when he wreaks havoc, an intensely loyal, big old goofball. This prequel offers Bumblebee a chance to shine, and you’ll come away with a newfound sense of affection for the most lovable alien vehicle in the universe.
• 2.5 stars
• Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Dylan O’Brien
• Directed by Travis Knight
• Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.