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It’s fair to say Michael Bay’s Transformers films haven’t earned the best reputation over the past 11 years. Known for overstuffed bombast and immature adult humour, rather than quality, it was time for a change—and this is coming from someone who appreciates Bay’s work outside of this franchise. Enter Travis Knight: President and CEO of stop-motion animation studio Laika; known for films Caroline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings—the latter of which Knight directed. There was a frustrating lack of charm and genuine heart to Bay’s films, which were drenched in mean-spiritedness and devoid of any soul. Bumblebee remembers that Transformers is a children’s franchise, with Knight taking a “less is more” approach and centring the story around a girl and her robot.

We follow Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) in 1987 who’s mourning the recent death of her father. When Charlie stumbles upon an old VW bug in a scrap yard, she discovers it’s more than just a car. Meanwhile, Bumblebee is being hunted by Government Agency Sector 7 who Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and her henchman Dropkick (Justin Theroux) convince is a dangerous war criminal.

Is there a better time for Bumblebee to come out than right now? On the surface the obvious answer is no. Last year’s Transformers: The Last Knight only made $AUD842.6 million (the previous instalment made $AUD1.53 billion) and the franchise was on the critical and commercial decline, but with ‘80s nostalgia in the prime of the entertainment zeitgeist, Bumblebee fits into that bracket.

It’s obvious Knight is a fan of the original Transformers show from the 1980s as the designs of our Transformers and their home planet Cybertron have a distinct cartoonish visual look. Much like what Brad Bird did with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Knight has translated his flair for animation storytelling and brought that obvious sensibility to live-action blockbuster filmmaking. What is so refreshing about Knight’s approach to the action is the Transformer-on-Transformer fights are visually coherent largely thanks to the retro design of our titular robot and his Decepticon adversaries. Instead of our Transformers having the modern, metallic looks of the Bay films which often created confusion as to who was fighting who, the primary colours of Transformers are distinct and their designs have been simplified for the better.

While there’s obviously action throughout the film, the real heart of the story comes from the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee. It’s incredibly refreshing to have a protagonist who isn’t incredibly heightened or bland (sorry Mark Wahlberg). Many of the film’s most heartfelt moments come from Charlie discovering new things about Bumblebee in her garage while trying desperately to hide him from the rest of her family.

This relationship obviously echoes E.T. and it’s clearly the primary inspiration for the film, along with The Iron Giant. There’s a main character dealing with the loss of a parent trying to find friendship in times of hardship while the government believes their alien is a threat. You could be describing either E.T. or Bumblebee with that synopsis. Christina Hodson’s screenplay (had uncredited rewrites from The Edge of Seventeen writer Kelly Fremon Craig) isn’t incredibly original, but it’s refreshing to see a film in this franchise with doesn’t contain a magical McGuffin with convoluted origins, and an array of supporting human characters and sub-plots.

Hailee Steinfeld gives a charming and heartfelt performance which has far more emotional heft than I expected from a character in a Transformers film. She’s a sympathetic character who’s also a fun and likable presence, much like in her Golden Globe-nominated turn in The Edge of Seventeen. Her performance only shines brighter when you remember she’s often only in scenes with Bumblebee—a fully CG character—who she bounces off with ease.

Where the movie plays more like your usual Transformers film is the military element with Sector 7 and John Cena’s Agent Burns. Unlike in Bay’s films, where the military elements are played very seriously, Knight deliberately portrays Sector 7—and especially Agent Burns—with definite silliness. Burns is a complete cartoon character with Cena playing the character in a goofy fashion which became more transparent as the film went along. His character even exclaims to Sector 7 that maybe, they shouldn’t be trusting the Decepticons considering how sinister their name sounds! Surprisingly, this is the first film in the franchise which has had a lead villainous female Transformer and Bassett channels all of the signature sly menace and allure voicing Shatter.

Bay’s signature adult humour is gone for the more innocent kind. I was concerned Charlie’s parents and younger brother—who I was afraid was going to be the sore comedic point—would debilitate the narrative, but even they get something to do.

Make no mistake, Bumblebee hits cliché beats for a coming-of-age story (I’m confident not even the most awful teenage girl would tease another girl about her father’s passing). There’s obvious reincorporation of plot elements which can be seen a mile away; the shift between Sector 7 conflict and the coming-of-age story can be often jarring. But Bumblebee works thanks to a great lead performance by Steinfeld as Charlie who—unlike most female characters in this franchise—is strong, smart and an underdog who isn’t there to be ogled at by the audience. I wasn’t expecting anything going in, but Knight brings an undeniable sense of heart and charm (with cheese along the way) which breathes life into a franchise desperately needing some positive buzz.

 

Bumblebee hits Australian cinemas December 20.