BUM­BLE­BEE

Don’t you for­get about ’Bee…

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Road­wor­thy or ready for the scrapheap?

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When Hailee Ste­in­feld’s Char­lie Wat­son finds Bum­ble­bee in this Trans­form­ers pre­quel, the Au­to­bot needs some lov­ing care. Metaphor? You might as well spray it all over old yeller’s VW bon­net. Af­ter five nu-metal far­ra­goes of de­creas­ing ap­peal from Michael Bay, di­rec­tor Travis Knight and writer Christina Hod­son face an up­hill strug­gle: how do you re­pair a franchise write-off this rough?

Charm and fun num­ber among the so­lu­tions of­fered by Knight, the Laika stu­dio an­i­ma­tor who made a gor­geous, heart­felt di­rec­to­rial de­but with Kubo And The Two Strings. De­spite the odd awk­ward tonal gear shift, Knight’s ori­gin story makes re­fresh­ingly light work of its up­hill climb, fu­elled by wit and warmth.

The boxy sim­plic­ity of Knight’s retro-en­gi­neered de­signs shows a gen­uine af­fec­tion for the source car­toons. And as for Bum­ble­bee’s voice, Dy­lan O’Brien’s faintly dorky de­liv­ery sug­gests some­thing equally help­ful: Knight gets the ‘for kids’ thing with­out con­de­scen­sion.

Where Bay tar­geted nos­tal­gic fans who should have out­grown maxed-up toy sto­ries, Bum­ble­bee stream­lines and re­freshes the nos­tal­gia an­gle by rewind­ing to the Trans­form­ers’ for­ma­tive years for a more tween­friendly telling. In Cal­i­for­nia, 1987, Ste­in­feld’s 18-year-old Char­lie grieves for her late dad as she bick­ers with her mum, en­dures her dim-bulb step-dad and tin­kers with old cars. Her band t-shirts pin­point mu­si­cal up­grades, too, with Bay’s sausage-metal ousted by well-cho­sen ’80s plea­sures from The Smiths to Sim­ple Minds.

Despatched to Earth by Op­ti­mus Prime, the sweetly curvy ’Bee suf­fers bruis­ing scraps with De­cep­ti­cons be­fore tak­ing cover among other bro­k­endown ve­hi­cles, where Char­lie finds him. Al­though Char­lie later de­vel­ops ties with goof­ball-next-door Memo (an en­dear­ing Jorge Len­de­borg Jr.), her mu­tu­ally restora­tive ’Bee bond an­chors the com­edy and ac­tion with an un­com­pli­cated fo­cus that proves wel­come af­ter Bay’s stren­u­ous ’bot­based myth-build­ing. Knight’s plot lifts – E.T., The Iron Gi­ant – are trans­par­ent, but at least he lifts from the best and makes warm work of the job.

If he can’t re­vive in­ter­est in the five-films-old war so eas­ily, he does man­age to wring some fun from it. De­cep­ti­cons Shat­ter (An­gela Bas­sett) and Drop­kick (Justin Th­er­oux) ar­rive equipped with some triple-chang­ing swag­ger and nifty sado-moves. True, their al­liance with US forces is silly. But at least its id­iocy doesn’t go un­no­ticed by Burns (John Cena), who banks al­most enough mock-ma­cho like­abil­ity to get away with his cheesier mo­ments.

Al­though some of the zingers could use a lit­tle sharp­en­ing, Hod­son’s dashes of wit do bring lev­ity to a se­ries that didn’t pre­vi­ously ‘do’ hu­mour in ways recog­nis­able to hu­man ears. Ste­in­feld’s equally grounded char­ac­ter adds heart and a can-do streak. Where other writ­ers might have ‘fixed’ her sor­rows with manly as­sis­tance, Char­lie takes charge of the fix­ing here. Whether she’s check­ing her armpits for BO or gen­tly re­buff­ing Memo’s awk­ward ad­vances, Char­lie plays like a bid to call time on the hot-pants fetishism of Bay’s era.

In that savvy cor­rec­tion and else­where, Knight and Hod­son have sal­vaged some­thing agree­able from an oth­er­wise badly dented se­ries. Kevin Har­ley

THE VER­DICT

Af­ter her Spi­der-Verse voice-work, Ste­in­feld leads an­other fresh, breezy franchise rein­ven­tion nicely. Knight takes the wheel with af­fec­tion­ate retro-care.

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