Film review: Bumblebee engagingly balances robot warfare with teenage growing pains

Bumblebee, the sixth instalment of the Transformers franchise, is a family-friendly origin story centred on the friendship between an autobot and a teenage girl that refreshingly doesn't jettison character development and emotion, writes Damon Smith

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie in Bumblebee
Damon Smith

THE robots in disguise receive a welcome and sweetly sentimental reboot in the sixth instalment of the Transformers franchise.

Travis Knight, Oscar nominee for the exquisite stop-motion animation Kubo And The Two Strings, replaces Michael Bay in the director's chair for a family-friendly origin story cast in the mould of The Iron Giant.

Bumblebee unfolds before events of the original Transformers and services a softly beating heart beneath gleaming metal through the touching friendship of the titular Autobot and a grief-stricken girl played by Pitch Perfect alumnus Hailee Steinfeld.

The 22-year-old actress delivers a beautifully calibrated and sincere performance, capturing the awkwardness of a teenager who hears her pain echoed in the songs of The Smiths.

Production designers go to town with late 1980s period detail – amusingly, the Decepticons are credited as architects of the World Wide Web – to a soundtrack that bops to the catchy melodies of A-Ha, Rick Astley, Tears For Fears and Steve Winwood.

Spectacular action sequences punctuate the heart-tugging narrative but director Knight wisely doesn't attempt to outmuscle Bay, whose penchant for special effects-laden destruction in slow-motion left previous tours of duty feeling bloated.

A bruising showdown against the dastardly Decepticons on planet Cybertron forces Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) to sound the Autobot retreat.

He dispatches energetic recruit B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth to establish a base of operations.

B-127 crash-lands in California and makes a hasty escape from armed forces commanded by Jack Burns (John Cena). During a subsequent skirmish with Decepticon warrior Blitzwing (David Sobolov), B-127 loses his vocal processor unit and his core memory is damaged. He transforms into a yellow Volkswagen Beetle shortly before his circuits shut down.

Plucky teenager Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) salvages the car from her local scrapyard and in the safety of her garage, she is stunned to discover the weather-beaten Beetle is a shape-shifting robot.

She Christens him Bumblebee and agrees to keep her mechanised pal safe, aided by smitten neighbour Memo (Jorge Lendeborg). Meanwhile, Decepticon hunters Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) trace B-127 to Earth and make first contact with Dr Powell (John Ortiz) from covert government agency Sector 7.

They convince the gullible scientist that Autobots are mankind's enemies and the only way to eliminate the threat is to allow them access to Earth's network of satellites.

"They literally call themselves Decepticons... that doesn't raise any red flags?" warns Jack.

Bumblebee is delightfully lean – it's the only film in the series to clock in under two hours – and balances aftershocks from the fall of Cybertron with Charlie's growing pains.

Steinfeld tenderly conveys the depth of her heroine's affection for her childlike robo-companion, who serves to protect the feeble human race and is one of the cutest weapons in the Transformers armoury.

Fleeting scenes of Decepticons executing humans, who explode as colourless goo, shouldn't disturb young audiences.

Every war has casualties and for once in this fantastical universe, compelling character development and heartfelt emotion aren't among the fallen.

BUMBLEBEE (PG, 114 mins) Sci-Fi/Action/Adventure/Romance. Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg, John Ortiz and the voices of Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Dylan O'Brien, Peter Cullen, David Sobolov. Director: Travis Knight

Released: December 26 (UK & Ireland)

RATING: 7/10

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