Charming in Disguise
by Casey Lee
When the late Roger Ebert reviewed "Revenge of the Fallen", this is what he had to say: "If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music from hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination". While the storytelling criticism against Michael Bay's imagination is not undue, it did still build a multi-billion franchise out of the wreckage of broken dreams and nostalgia for the children who grew up with the cartoon series in the 1980s. Despite spawning five installments for the merchandise factories, Paramount decided to put Bay's pyrotechnics back into the bomb shelter and set up a writer's room that could potentially steer the Transformers franchise into a more cohesive Transformers Cinematic Universe (giving Paramount their Marvel-like gold mine), going in the direction to make more sequels and spin-offs to extend its cinematic (and toyline) life cycle.
Bumblebee is the first vehicle to come out from that creative garage, and it made an unprecedented decision to put a stop-motion director in the driver's seat. Travis Knight, CEO of Oscar-nominated Laika, had just come off going head-to-head with animation giant Disney Animation Studios in the Best Animated Oscars, and despite not winning the coveted statuette, had revitalized the appeal of stop motion animation. Even before announcing and leading Laika's next initiative, Knight was set to make his live action directorial debut, with a bloated franchise that inspired little faith that Knight would be able to break away from the weight of its ghastly conventions; explosions, product placement, and paper-thin plot.
To the doubters, there is bad news. Working with a smaller scale and having the freedom of a prequel to Bay's first bombastic romp, Knight's Bumblebee embraces the wonders of transforming robots, with the best remembered Spielbergian coming-of-age innocence. Screenwriter Christina Hodson crafts a story that respects, despite its misgivings towards, the continuity it has to follow but still sets its own tone about the first and titular Autobot that lands onto Earth. Those who want to keep their memory of the original Transformer cartoon series would be appeased as the first scene rolls out, but the adventure continues when boy meets robot that is more reminiscent of "Iron Giant" and "Real Steel". As the proceedings take place in Russian-fearing America 1980s when deceiving Decepticons follow the trail, it gladly wears its innocent charms on its sleeves and utilises its cliches for child-like enjoyment and simple pleasures. That being said, Knight is not shy with some subversion of those familiar tropes to derive some of the best humor in Bumblebee, but there are still signs of struggle to get into the right rhythm that would have smoothen out the experience.
While Hailee Steinfeld's 'boy and her robot' better characterisation gave a smack in the face of Shia Labouf's take on the archetype and the franchise's precedent attitude towards gender, her speechless robot serves as a far better sidekick than Jorge Lendeborg Jr.'s shy and rather pointless love interest (also another smack against another Bay-sian entitlement?).
With a few bumps, Bumblebee is a joy ride from a franchise that has built a reputation of being a sickening roller coaster. Whether this is the slow climb before the nauseating pummel for the franchise, this is a good revving start for the new Transformers Cinematic Universe. For once, there is a spot in the franchise that fires up the imagination and worth paying the ticket price for.