By Jim Slotek
Transformers director Michael Bay once promised to my face that his next instalment, with Mark Wahlberg, would clock in at about two hours – which would’ve been an unprecedentedly short running time for those bloated rock ‘em sock ‘em robot films.
He lied. That Transformers movie, Age of Extinction ended up 15 minutes short of three hours, making it the longest ordeal of them all.
In the hands of director Travis Knight, Bumblebee, the lighthearted Transformers prequel/spin-off finally confirms the virtues of brevity (and of trimming a few pointless robot fights in favour of scenes involving actual humans interacting).
At just under two hours, it won’t lose your antsy younger viewers and an older audience won’t have to worry that their kids have graduated from college and left home without saying goodbye while they’ve been gone.
And surprise! From my observations of an actual human audience, it turns out kids are far more entertained by a giant robot character stumbling around an average human family’s home causing unintentional property damage than they are by interminable bot smackdowns.
Set in the late ‘80s, and as much Mean Girls as Transformers, Bumblebee opens with a bad turn on the planet Cybertron, where the good bots, Optimus Prime’s Autobots, are losing the civil war to the Decepticons. Ordered to disperse, one lonely bot is sent to Earth to set up a rebel outpost. Unfortunately, he is tracked and – amid Earth military fire - must battle a Decepticon interceptor to the death (his, almost). Systems failing, memory and voice damaged, he shuts down, transforming into the last thing he sees, a yellow VW Beetle.
Which is where this finally becomes a human story. Teenager Charlie (a likeable Hailee Steinfeld), is at odds with her mom and stepdad, constantly retreating to her room and her adoration of The Smiths (I liked her already at this point).
A car nut, she comes into possession of the (literally) beaten up Beetle and sets about getting it roadworthy. She accomplishes more, of course, activating the amnesiac robot that she names Bumblebee and accepts with all his extraterrestrial quirks.
Bumblebee is her accomplice when Charlie and her wannabe boyfriend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) toilet-paper a bullying mean girl’s house, and escape pursuit by a cop (Charlie is a self-driving automobile 30-plus years before such things are ever invented).
At this point, the movie is The Iron Giant with a female protagonist. The still-mute Bumblebee even learns to talk to his new best friend, after a fashion, via the lyrics of pop songs on the radio (‘80s hit after ‘80s hit – be warned if you’re allergic to Rick Astley).
It is inevitable, of course, that Bumblebee turns back into a Transformers movie eventually. Our hero is tracked down by two Decepticons, Dropkick and Shatter (voiced by Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett), convincing the military and one especially gullible military scientist (John Ortiz) that they’re the good guys on the trail of a mechanized alien criminal. The one human giving them the skunk-eye is Agent Burns (John Cena, giving one of his better performances – I didn’t think about the WWE once), who oversees back-up weapons tailored to taking down bots.
So, we have our de rigueur last act of robot fights, with a race against time to destroy a transmitter that would set up Optimus and pals for a trap. (One thing I’ve never understood about Transformers fights: They all have hugely destructive laser cannons for arms and such, and yet they always just end up punching each other).
That part of Bumblebee is pretty much a template, one that Knight probably wasn’t allowed to mess with. But if brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also the saving grace of a franchise that seemed played out.
Bumblebee. Directed by Travis Knight. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Opens wide Friday, December 21.