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Bumblebee

A fantastic change from the usual gobbledygook of the Transformers franchise
© Hasbro Studios / With evil Transformers, the U.S. Army and her mom breathing down her neck, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks to save her friend Bumblebee and the planet.
      In 1987, the Autobots rose up to rid their home planet, Cybertron, of the evil Decepticons. It wasn’t looking good so the Autobot B-127 was dispatched to Earth to scout a safe relocation spot. B-127 is promptly spotted by the U.S. Army and the Decepticons. Injured, and with failing batteries, he transforms into a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and hopes for rescue.
       Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) doesn’t know any of this as she dreams of getting a car for her 18th birthday. Seeing a junker yellow Bug in her uncle’s scrapyard, she begs him to bring it home.
      When she looks under the hood, Charlie’s surprised to discover a sentient being that transforms into a robot. She resolves to keep secret the creature, which she names Bumblebee and which becomes her pet, of sorts. Bumblebee, who can’t remember his old world or mission, is fine with this arrangement. 
      All goes well until Charlie tinkers with Bumblebee’s mechanics, setting off a signal that alerts the Decepticons to an escaped Autobot. With evil Transformers, the U.S. Army and her mom breathing down her neck, Charlie seeks to save her friend and the planet.
      This remix of ET and Lassie is a fantastic change from the usual gobbledygook of the Transformers franchise. Instead of cacophonous action and mercenary voicing by respected actors, Bumblebee offers a good story and characters you care about. 
      Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) has made the first Transformers movie that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve incurred a head injury. He also manages the unheard of feat of making Transformers fight sequences with clear, coherent action. 
       A former animator and director for the innovative Laika Entertainment, Knight has practice breathing life and emotion into inanimate objects. He does this beautifully in Bumblebee, giving the eponymous Transformer a real sense of being and tenderness, especially when he interacts with Charlie. These moments help establish Bumblebee as far more than a hunk of metal who can transform into neat car shapes. 
       The real distinction, however, is that Knight offers us a human character worth spending two hours with. Charlie is a far cry from the typical Transformers types: Mark Wahlberg squinting in confusion and Shia LaBeouf gawping at nothing.
       Steinfeld shines as a girl wounded by family tragedy. She’s smart, kind and funny but incapable of reconnecting with a family she feels is leaving her behind. When Bumblebee transforms her life, she gets a mission. With a purpose, she can channel her emotion and gumption. Her relationship with Bumblebee empowers them both.
       Charlie also avoids the franchise’s curse: sexualizing every female under the age of 40. 
      Still, Bumblebee has flaws. The plot is thin, and the scenes on Cybertron are tedious unless you’re a dedicated fan of the ’80s’ cartoon. But these moments are fleeting. What’s left is a good story about a wounded girl and a wounded Transformer healing each other. 
      If you’re dubious because of the films that came before it, give Bumblebee a try. There are enough silly robots doing cool things to entertain the little ones and enough heart to keep older viewers invested. 
Good Action Adventure • PG-13 • 114 mins.
 
 
~~~ New this Week ~~~
 
Escape Room
       Six strangers sign up to test an escape room, hoping to win a cash prize. But failing these roomy-room quizzes has real-life consequences. Their options are to band together to defeat the increasingly difficult rooms — or betray one another in hope of a better chance at survival.
       Unfortunately, it’s January. What this means is besides a few prestige indie films hoping to qualify for the Oscars, moviegoers are going to be stuck with schlock or horror that the studios know isn’t worth the price of admission. Escape Room falls into the latter category, and gimmick horror movies are almost always disappointing.
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 100 mins.