When the bot adventure "Transformers" came out in 2007, it quickly became shorthand for everything that's loud, dumb and wrong about CGI-saturated action movies. Luckily, "Bumblebee," the new prequel about a plucky little (well, relatively) Volkswagen-robot tones down everything that made its predecessors weak, while adding humor, emotion and a surprising amount of heart.
As the film begins, a war between the Decepticons (bad guys) and the Autobots (good guys) is raging on the planet Cybertron. Eventually, the Decepticons are victorious and the Autobots scatter across the universe, with the titular bot - officially known as B-127 and voiced by Dylan O'Brien - heading to Earth to hide out and scope it out as a possible base. He ends up crashing into California, right into the laps of a Special Forces team led by Agent Burns (John Cena). They start shooting, just in time for a Decepticon to arrive with a mission to send Bumblebee to the great junkyard in the sky. After an impressive battle that convinces Burns that all Transformers are bent on destruction, Bumblebee finds himself with a broken voice box and a failing memory. He powers down, hiding out in the form of a cheerful yellow VW Beetle.
Fast-forward to 1987, when Bumblebee is discovered in a junkyard and brought back to life by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old with a knack for machines who is still grieving the death of her father some years ago. After she starts him up, the two become fast (if unlikely) friends: One, a sullen teen with a fondness for the Smiths, and the other an innocent bot with baby-blue eyes. She dubs him "Bumblebee" in a nod to the electric buzzing noise that's replaced his voice.
While the plot of "Bumblebee" technically centers on Charlie and Bumblebee's efforts to avoid two Decepticon bounty hunters (Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett), the movie is really about their relationship. In the beginning, they're both a bit timid; she's an offbeat teenager, he's a giant metal child. Without a voice, Bumblebee communicates his emotions through physicality; eventually Charlie installs a radio he uses to land on songs that convey what's on his mind. In addition to an expressive face, his body language and movements are adorable. At one point, he sits with his legs straight out, his huge feet making him look like a 5-year-old trying on his dad's shoes. It's easy for both Charlie and the audience to want to protect him.
Although Bumblebee gets the movie's title, the story belongs just as much to Charlie, and Steinfeld is as sharp and funny and awkward as any other '80s teen-movie protagonist. The only two other characters that really matter are her next-door neighbor (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Agent Burns. While Lendeborg adeptly fills the role of the nerd who pines from afar, Cena only shines when he's allowed to show off the comedic gifts we saw in "Trainwreck" and "Sisters." Alas, his attempts to glower and growl are largely unsuccessful.
Those who come for the punching will also come away pleased. After the one melee at the beginning, most of the fighting is hand-to-hand (axle to axle?) and in close quarters. The robots flip and clang with impressive speed and clarity, and the excellent sound design illustrates what's going on, rather than simply assaulting the audience's ears.
There are, of course, some weaknesses, including the expected amount of clunky dialogue, predictable passages and plot holes. (Great cinema this is not.) But those are easily shrugged off in favor of watching Bumblebee and Charlie's relationship change them both for the better.
In the end, "Bumblebee" is less a movie about giant robot aliens punching each other than it is a story about friendship. Charlie finds a way to cope with her grief. And Bumblebee finds a way to grow into someone who learns to cope with a world where he's not welcome. Underneath the metal veneer, there is a genuinely touching story of two friends who help one another along a road that, in the beginning, neither of them thought they could walk. Or drive.