In an effort to watch more movies this year (no, this isn’t some resolution that will die off in six weeks, this is just a general quest to catch up on what’s hot at the local picturehouse), it’s time to reinvigorate the Barry Norman section of this blog with the first film write-up of 2019, Bumblebee.
First, let’s travel back to 1987. Aretha Franklin has just become the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Simpsons airs for the first time and Luis Suarez chews his way out of his mother’s womb. Meanwhile, an eight year-old me is playing with his figures of Optimus Prime, Beachcomber and Cosmos, fighting the ongoing battle against the evil Decepticons right here on Earth. As it turns out, also in 1987, a young mechanically-minded girl called Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), mourning the death of her father, encounters a rusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle at a junkyard and is swept into a similar robotic war.
After five live action films of increasing ridiculousness, the Transformers movie franchise is rebooting, and with Bumblebee, it’s taking us back to the very start in more ways than one. War is raging on the robots’ home planet of Cybertron and in a desperate attempt to regroup, a scout named B-127 is sent by Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced once more by the legendary Peter Cullen) to the planet Earth. Crash landing straight into a training exercise by specialist military unit Sector 7, B-127 is left dazed, confused and in hiding. After being taken in by Charlie, the newly-monikered Bumblebee finds himself battling to avoid detection by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick who are intent on destroying the Autobot resurgence before it even begins, all the while being hampered by the additional threat of Sector 7 led by former US Army Ranger Jack Burns (John Cena).
Making his live action directorial debut, former musician and animator Travis Knight has been given the green light to deliver a Transformers spin-off that works through a lightness of touch and a focus on what made the toy and cartoon franchise so popular in the first place; heart. In the main, the robots here are all distinguishable in look rather than just being different shades of steel (see anything that Michael Bay directed previously) and personalities also shine through. There’s a warming sense of humour here as well, with Charlie’s family offering some good comic relief and Jorge Lendeborg Jr’s Memo character full of charm rather than being another generic sidekick to act as a plot device. Even the use of incidental characters such as policemen, neighbours and college acquaintances seem to be plucked straight from other 80s classics like The Breakfast Club or Smokey & The Bandit, expertly helping to paint a rich period picture.
Special mention also has to go to Bumblebee’s soundtrack. With the film being set in the late 80s, Knight is given a vastly diverse array of music to work with from The Smiths to Bon Jovi to Duran Duran, and each time a song is used it enhances the story perfectly. It almost feels like repeat viewing of the movie is needed to pick out all the little flourishes and nods buried throughout, whether it’s the music, the minute detail in the Cybertron scenes (where even the weapons perfectly match those we placed in the hands of our favourite robots 30 years ago) or the links to the rest of the movies in the series; Bumblebee really is reboot, origin story and the missing link between toys, cartoons and films all in one.
Yes there are a few moments you can telegraph a mile off and some of the sentiment may veer towards the mawkish, but Bumblebee is still an exciting, action-packed love letter to a more innocent time. By bringing together what the fans have always wanted from a Transformers film, Knight has nailed what the original cartoon taught us; good can and will triumph over evil and it’ll have a crazy, yet fun time in doing so.