According to journalist and author Christopher Booker, there are seven basic story archetypes. According to the writers of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, there are none. Thank goodness, then, for screenwriter Christina Hodson, whose new film Bumblebee manages to be both a Transformers spinoff and a coherent story at the same time.
This is, put simply, a franchise reborn. Rebooted. Resurrected. It dispenses with all the bombast of the Bay cacophony machine – the inexplicable explosions, one-dimensional characters and hyper-sexualised teenagers – in favour of a small scale story about a teen girl and her first car. Yes, a girl, and instead of miniature ripped shorts and extreme push-up bras, this one's prone to wearing grubby overalls, Smiths tour t-shirts and a spanner in her back pocket. Even better, her characterisation doesn't feel contrived: her late father was a grease monkey and fixing cars was their special father/daughter thing. Now that he's gone, it's all she has left.
Played by Hailee Steinfeld, Charlie is an instantly appealing lead to get behind. She loves her family but feels detached and alone because of her reluctance to move on and accept the new man in her mother's life. She's independent, but not wealthy enough to forge a new life for herself. She's pretty, but not in the 'rich girl' way like the cruel queen bee from across town who torments her at every opportunity. When Charlie eventually finds Bumblebee, an injured alien robot hiding on earth disguised as an old yellow VW beetle, the instant bond they form is as touching as it is (strangely) believable. Together they will help each other find what they're looking for, with their bond far more integral to the story than the intergalatic robot war that provides the film its backdrop.
Does that mean Transformers fans will feel shortchanged? Absolutely not. The opposite, in fact, because everything about Bumblebee treats its mechanical stars with the love and respect of someone who grew up watching the cartoons in the 80s (the film itself is set in 1987). The robot design and colour palette is admirably faithful to the source material, the voice work is spot on, and *that* sound effect (aka the transformation garble) is used with gleeful abandon. Even better, the action is entirely comprehensible, even at its most frenetic. Take nothing away from the Bay-era special effects – they were utterly groundbreaking. But there was just so much of it going on at all times that keeping track of who was fighting what became an exercise in nausea. In Bumblebee it's rare to see more than two transformers on screen at any one time, and the agile direction by Travis Knight allows you to enjoy every punch, blast and transformation.
In the scenes involving the other human characters, principally John Cena's robot-hunting soldier Agent Burns, the story does tend to lose its momentum, flicking between goofy comedy and comic-book villainy without ever properly nailing either. Thankfully, though, the focus remains squarely on Charlie and 'Bee' for the majority of Bumblebee, and it's a better film for it. A delight in its own right, Bumblebee is also the perfect pivot point for a welcome franchise reset. On that front, the future looks bright.