The rebirth of a franchise that finds gold in regression
The "Transformers" film series was up to its neck in problems for a very long time; "The Last Knight" was the straw that broke the camel's back and suggested, albeit only for a couple of weeks, the steel-made extravagance the fiercest Michael Bay once conceived was off. Critics, in outline, abhorred increasingly each new installment; however, more people exponentially turn up at the movies to strive to understand the superhero-level set-pieces and to elude the heavy-handed, daft, confusing mythology writers and directors made up for every two-hour-plus nonsense on screen with more difficulty and less success. Punishingly overlong, self-indulgent, inflated and uber-pretentious; the numbers, out of the blue, took a nosedive, needless to say, there was no historic underperformer, but against billion-dollar "Dark of the Moon" and "Age of Extinction," downfall was close at hand, and it's crystal-clear messing with studios' money is the only way an American major reworks and recasts its shaky structures.
Many might say that they're just getting started, but in view of the final result, a stripped-down flick has been the cleverest move. The project of a prequel/spin-off centered on one of its two most emblematic characters came up from out of nowhere. At the same time, as the idea was taking shape by signing director, screenwriter and leading actress up, half the world went bananas trying to predict what kind of film Paramount Pictures was cooking up. I can say with absolute conviction that this is easily the best "Transformers" movie to date.
Considering those responsible for such remarkable production, you could never picture the dazzling, moving end product. Bay, hated and loved equally, comes back, but just as a producer, which denotes a good, significant step up. An act of redemption by screenwriter Christina Hodson, guilty of shamefully careless screenplays such as "Unforgettable" by Denise Di Novi or "Shut In" by Farren Blackburn. Director Travis Knight is a wholly different story; nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for the lyrical stop-motion feats "Kubo and the Two Strings" and "The Boxtrolls." American singer Hailee Steinfeld has shaped an acting career brimming with victories, with an Oscar nomination for her practically flawless performance as Mattie Ross in Coen Brothers' "True Grit" and one Golden Globe for her unique Nadine in "The Edge of Seventeen," my favorite coming of age film— Bo Burnham's highly praised "Eighth Grade" is still waiting in my bucket list. — BAFTA nominee Enrique Chediak has been the director of photography of nothing but "28 Weeks Later" and "127 Hours." Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli has been the composer of sound art pieces and masterpieces such as "Paddington 2," "Darkest Hour," "Anna Karenina," "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement." These are the heterogeneous ingredients of a film that surprises not only for its tonal metamorphosis with respect to its predecessors, but the heart, vigor, and simplicity the film uses to weave its story.
"Bumblebee" is a nostalgia-driven adventure of unsuspected narrative force, focusing on ever-present themes that movies don't get tired of digging into and, why not, mixing up such as friendship, adolescence and growing up with a doubtless 80s flavor, a time the film takes advantage of. Setting it somewhere between the most fantastic John Carpenter, "Stripes," The Smiths and A-ha is the right time to get rid of any dispensable hassle, going back to basics and staying there, it's just Charlie and the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle in a survival race; zero Bayhem.
The film takes its time to set up the underpinnings and to present our heroine's dramatic arch, a young woman struggling to come to grips with her father's sudden death. She lives among abandoned vehicles, car relics, and teenager gloom; on her birthday, she ends up acquiring a beat-up, tiny yellow car, a vehicle that becomes her confidant, her bestie. We've already heard this story a thousand times, but let's face it: no one on planet Earth can resist clever, poignant feel-good movies, no matter time, place or mood, this always enjoyable sub-genre will get followers in large part for how easy it is to identify yourself and get along with the characters. Besides, due to Mr. Bay's pyrotechnic filmmaking, it was exciting to imagine such a story starring Bumblebee, in the 80s. The final result couldn't be better. Charlie receives a careful treatment, unfolding her wounds and trying to heal them so honestly that the most dramatic moments are painfully stabbing.
Bumblebee receives a dignified narrative background as well: he and his species are being hunted by a pair of Decepticons, which allows displaying the high-sounding, better-handled action sequences with finesse. The funniest, most emotional, tender character-driven moments take place in the first forty-five minutes of footage, a long period where Charlie finds and meets the naïve steel-made creature, where she tries to communicate with, instruct and teach him that the world in which he's stranded isn't a human-sized paradise. The story points at the big finale alongside, via small doses of the trademark complicated, sometimes unintelligible terminology and chronology. The second half of the flick is out-and-out pure spectacle, harmonized by John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and measured yet helpful comedy shots amidst the Herculean battles. Knight ultimately carries out his duties by hooking the audience up and tearing apart their hearts, knowing beforehand that coming-of-age-like sub-genres could not be part of the franchise again.
The set-pieces, as opposed to those of its predecessors, like the film itself, are much more restrained and compelling, not so groovy or showy because of a realism beautifully rendered with impressive digital effects that, even without high-resolution IMAX screens, endows action sequences with humanizing character. There is a good lack of predictability threatening to eliminate core characters just mid-story through unexpectedly raw images that kids will struggle to bear, excluding PG-13 carnage, a handful of murders amusingly reduced to plasma. Certain continuity, pace and editing errors should be attributed to editor Paul Rubell, however, as a coherent whole, it is a resonant, overly enjoyable popcorn film that will delight all kinds of audiences, even the devotees of Bay and his exuberant filmmaking style.
Technically and artistically speaking, it's excellently made, the camera moves with finesse and puts special focus on the development scenes like this saga had never seen before, holding their feelings and tones and throwing them to the viewer; it's praiseworthy that every scene gets a precise treatment which justifies its place in the footage. The '80s references and easter-eggs are juicy and countless both physically and spiritually, as each frame tries to unfold the life of the protagonist in a time of iconic clothing and hairstyle, female liberation, music history, political riot, and scientific discoveries.
"Bumblebee" by Travis Knight gives life and hope to a franchise in its death throes through Steinfeld's charming, sincere performance, the heart of a script based on friendship and forgiveness, and the emotional narrative control that Travis stamps in all his movies. Without warning, the "Transformers" film franchise rises from the ashes, and despite its post-credits scene suggests a risky return formalized by Paramount Pictures' brand-new measures, it's better we rejoice now in the candor and simplicity of a film jam-packed with underlying shrewdness.