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  • 3 out of 5

BumbleBee - It's ET for a new generation

It's a Transformers film that made me laugh and cry. It had a story that....wait! It had a story? Yes, a story that made sense and involved real human emotions. It had a story.

Yes, we get some of the pixels thumping other pixels and the opening few minutes had me worried. I need not have been. Director Travis Knight has crafted a film that is enjoyable, predictable but enjoyable. Credit is also due to the performance of Hailee Steinfeld who I say last in the 2010 remake of True Grit. She impressed then and I'm pleased to say she made this film her own with real emotional depth.

So where are we in the T-world?

BUMBLEBEE starts during a civil war on the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron, where Autobot resistance leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sends his young lieutenant, B-127 (Dylan O'Brien), on a mission to Earth to establish a base, protect the planet's inhabitants, and await their allies. But B-127 is followed by two Decepticons, who wound him and destroy his voice box. Later, in 1987 California, angsty Bay Area teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle while scouring a junk yard on her 18th birthday. Charlie, who's still grieving her late father, fixes the rusty old VW, which quickly transforms back into a robot alien that Charlie names Bumblebee. As Charlie befriends Bumblebee and introduces him to her neighbor, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), two Decepticons enforcers land on Earth. Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) convince government agents, including a reluctant John Cena and an awed John Ortiz, to collaborate in order to find the "dangerous" Bumblee.

The talented, expressive Steinfeld and a nuanced script elevate this prequel from "unnecessary" to "surprisingly poignant and entertaining." Comparisons between Bumblebee and E.T. are easy to draw, because Charlie nearly instantly connects with the voiceless, skittish alien. They bond over clips of '80s movies and music cassettes (he hilariously ejects The Smiths, one of her favorite, angsty bands, instead preferring radio jams that can speak for him). Charlie's sidekick is her neighboor, whom Lendeborg plays with sweet comedic sincerity. Their chemistry is cute, with only a hint of romance, a much-needed change from the previous films.

Director Travis Knight, making his live-action debut and working from a script by Christina Hodson, helms the movie with a sensibility that mirrors the films he's directed/produced (Kubo and The Boxtrolls): A lonely, grieving adolescent goes on an unexpected adventure, through which she learns about herself and her legacy. Knight might not have seemed like a natural fit for this live-action directing gig on the face of things, but it makes sense given his love of coming-of-age stories that feature particularly sensitive and brave young protagonists. Ultimately, there was no need for this prequel, but it's much better than expected, and the best of the Transformers series to date.

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