Un­even ‘Bum­ble­bee’ gives cud­dly alien ro­bot a chance to shine

EE1/ 2 Cast: Hailee Ste­in­feld, Jorge Len­de­borg Jr., John Cena, Dy­lan O'Brien Di­rec­tor: Travis Knight 113 min­utes Rated PG-13 (se­quences of sci-fi ac­tion vi­o­lence)

The Tribune (SLO) - - Ticket - BY KATIE WALSH

Down­siz­ing was the only an­swer for the “Trans­form­ers” fran­chise after 2017’s epic, sprawl­ing “Trans­form­ers: The Last Knight.” After five bom­bas­tic in­stall­ments from true gear­head Michael Bay, go­ing big­ger sim­ply wasn’t an op­tion. So Paramount de­cided to go home, par­ing the lat­est film back to an ori­gin story and get­ting at what makes this fran­chise tick: the friendly yel­low Trans­former known as Bum­ble- bee.

Paramount hired “Kubo and the Two Strings” di­rec­tor Travis Knight to helm the ’80s-set “Bum­ble­bee” pre­quel, with a script penned by Christina Hod­son. What Hod­son and Knight bring to the film – which was pre­vi­ously miss­ing from the fran­chise – is heart, hon­ing in on the re­la­tion­ships and emo­tional con­nec­tions that ac­tu­ally make us care about the talk­ing ro­bot cars from outer space.

Hailee Ste­in­feld stars as Char­lie, a mu­sic-ob­sessed 18-year-old who wakes up to the Smiths and has quite the en­vi­able col­lec­tion of band T-shirts. She’s mourn­ing the loss of her fa­ther, pour­ing her­self into work­ing on his clas­sic car. All she wants is her own set of wheels, so when a dusty yel­low VW Bee­tle shows up at the junk­yard, she fi­na­gles a way to take it home. Much to her sur­prise, the lit­tle beater morphs into a scared, quiv­er­ing, gi­ant ro­bot, whom she dubs Bum­ble­bee.

Bum­ble­bee is ini­tially voiced by Dy­lan O'Brien, a wee Trans­former sent by the Au­to­bot re­sis­tance to pro­tect Earth from the De­cep­ti­cons. Dur­ing an ugly clash, his vo­cal ma­chin­ery is dam­aged, so Char­lie gives him his voice back with an AM/ FM ra­dio he learns to use for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. All au­di­ences need to know about the con­text of the Au­to­bot/De­cep­ti­con war that’s landed Bum­ble­bee here is this: Two De­cep­ti­cons in the form of mus­cle cars land on Earth to de­stroy him, and in do­ing so, they in­fil­trate the U.S. Army’s re­sources. They’re hop­ing to find the rest of the Au­to­bots, and pre­sum­ably, at some point, plun­der Earth for re­sources.

It’s dur­ing the melee that Char­lie truly comes into her own. She’s been dis­tanced from her fam­ily, in­clud­ing her mother (Pamela Ad­lon) and step- dad (Stephen Sch­nei­der), dis­traught over the sud­den loss of her fa­ther. Fight­ing to pro­tect Bum­ble­bee is how she learns to step into her power, take re­spon­si­bil­ity and ac­cept the con­se­quences.

The ’80s era of “Bum­ble­bee” harks back to the true ori­gin of the Trans­form­ers as Satur­day morn­ing car­toons. Ev­ery­one’s fa­vorite ’80s tunes play an im­por­tant role in the film, and Hod­son’s script is self-con­sciously de­signed as a clas­sic John Hughes sendup. Jorge Len­de­borg Jr. vamps awk­wardly as Char­lie’s nerdy love in­ter­est, Memo. But sev­eral of the best lines come with a bit too big of a wink at the teen movie for­mula, which lends to a sense of irony that lingers around the edges of the oth­er­wise deeply sin­cere film.

The heart of “Bum­ble­bee” is Bum­ble­bee it­self, and he’s the fur­thest thing from ironic. The gi­ant yel­low bot is just a cud­dly crea­ture. His blue eyes widen in­no­cently, and he leans his mas­sive head in for a cud­dle. He’s a gi­ant golden re­triever puppy, un­aware of his mas­sive size, sheep­ish, guilty when he wreaks havoc, an in­tensely loyal, big old goof­ball. This pre­quel of­fers Bum­ble­bee a chance to shine, and you'll come away with a new­found sense of af­fec­tion for the most lov­able alien ve­hi­cle in the uni­verse.

Hailee Ste­in­feld and a gi­ant yel­low bot star in “Bum­ble­bee.”

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