Hailee Steinfeld shines in this charming Transformers movie featuring a teen outcast and a robot disguised as a VW Beetle
In its turbulent opening set piece, the pineapple-yellow robot B-127 (later nicknamed Bumblebee) has his voice box ripped out. Yet this instance of brash spectacle is the only real similarity between this origin story and the five previous Transformers instalments, all directed by Michael Bay. Though the film is live-action, it is directed by animator Travis Knight of Laika Studios (Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight’s feature debut). Knight’s touch gives the proceedings an old-school feel; the machines seem more tactile than their smoothly designed descendants, helped along by the 1987 period setting.
Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, a marvel) is a teenage outcast desperate for her own car and putting in shifts at the local garage. It’s here she comes across Bumblebee, in disguise and hiding from the Decepticons (voiced by Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett), temporarily reconfigured as a Volkswagen Beetle. The film becomes a buddy comedy as the two communicate through 80s pop songs, blasted from the car’s cassette player (Bumblebee spits out a tape of the Smiths’ Girlfriend in a Coma in protest). Watching Steinfeld tenderly cradle this digitally animated robot’s face in her small human hands as she asks him “What are you? Where did you come from?” is a magic Spielbergesque moment, the emotional beats ripped directly from ET. Though the references are familiar, it’s a fresh direction for the macho franchise.