The Movie Guru: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena help make ‘Bumblebee’ wonderful
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence.
Written by: Christina Hodson.
Directed by: Travis Knight.
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, JOhn Cena, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett, Jorge Lendenbord Jr., John Ortiz and more.
Grade: Three and a half stars.
Consider this my official petition to have director Travis Knight reboot the entire “Transformers” universe.
He already has an excellent beginning with “Bumblebee,” the first live-action “Transformers” movie that actually feels like a proper “Transformers” movie. It’s exciting, warm-hearted and hilarious, designed to appeal to both casual and intense fans of the universe. Even if you’ve never heard of the big robots that can turn into vehicles, you can appreciate “Bumblebee” as great, family-friendly sci-fi.
The movie opens on the Transformers’ home planet, where the Autobot resistance is fighting a losing war against the Decepticons. Bumblebee is sent to Earth to establish a base, but a fight with a Decepticon leaves him without either his voice or memory. He stays hiding as a Volkswagen Beetle until a teenage girl named Charlie finds him, but when he wakes up again, it seems the war has already followed them to Earth.
We’ve seen “a boy and his alien friend” movies before, but fans of the genre know there’s always room for more. “Bumblebee” hits all the emotional notes that make this kind of film so satisfying; from a beautifully portrayed bond between the two, to the courage both have to show during the dramatic heroics at the end. One reason these kind of stories work so well is that kids and teens often feel misunderstood and alienated, and so it’s kind of an ultimate fantasy to be able to bond to someone who’s literally a misunderstood alien.
Also, it’s incredibly important to note that “Bumblebee” gives the alien friend and resulting world-saving adventure to a girl, rather than a male. Outside of young adult post-apocalyptic romances, girls are still woefully underrepresented in the sci-fi genre when it comes to anything like leading roles. Girls love sci-fi just as much as boys do, but they almost never get to see themselves playing the hero.
With Charlie, however, we get that in spades. She may not be the “chosen one,” but she’s brave, loving and really great at fixing cars. Hailee Steinfeld actually makes the character feel like she’s on the verge of being 18, that time in your life when you’re simultaneously both a grown-up and a child. The character’s bravery feels both organic and earned, and when she cries it’s hard not to get teary right alongside her. She learns and grows, finding inner strength for the sake of a friend and because it’s the right thing to do.
The rest of the cast is great as well, particularly John Cena as the requisite military representative. He’s as imposing as you might expect, but he’s also great in the lighter moments. The man has a surprising gift of comedy, and some of the best lines in the movie go to him.
Watching “Bumblebee,” it was easy to imagine a world where Michael Bay never directed a single “Transformers” movie. It was the Christmas gift I didn’t know I needed.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.