PLOT In 1987, a California girl fixes up an old car that turns into a robot.
CAST Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.
RATED PG-13 (violence)
BOTTOM LINE A not-bad origin story about one of the more more agreeable Transformers.
“Bumblebee,” a spinoff from the "Transformers" franchise, is a more endearing movie than it has a right to be, thanks to its two leads. One is Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson, a misfit tomboy with an Elvis Costello shirt and engine grease under her fingernails. The other is a lemon-yellow, vintage Volkswagen Bug, which falls into Charlie’s life and changes it forever.
That Bug will unfold itself into Bumblebee, the amiable robot-soldier from the planet Cybertron, but I could have done without that and just watched two hours of Girl Meets Car. With Steinfeld’s earnest performance as a deep-feeling teen living in the shallow 1980s, and several summery scenes devoted to the thrill of one's first wheels, “Bumblebee” sometimes feels like a poignant coming-of-age movie hiding inside a blockbuster.
There is plenty of blockbustering, of course. “Bumblebee” begins with our yellow-armored hero, B-127, leaving his war-torn planet for Northern California, only to be attacked by an overzealous military (led by an amusing John Cena as Agent Burns). Hunted by two conniving Decepticons (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux as the voices of Shatter and Dropkick), he takes the shape of a beat-up Beetle and winds up in a junkyard. That’s where Charlie spots him and it’s love at first sight.
“Bumblebee” is one of countless films modeled on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” which is to say, it’s about a kid who finds a stray. Screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight, an animation veteran (“The Boxtrolls”), put great care into the bonding scenes between Charlie and her foundling: She brings him home, learns he is scared and injured (his voice-box has been destroyed), gives him a name (for his wordless buzzing), then reveals him to a friend, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). The giant robot has a cuddly, puppyish quality here, thanks to circus performer Chris Grabher.
Unlike the more recent "Transformers" films, which have felt bloated and self-serious, “Bumblebee” has a spring in its step and gets to where it’s going quickly. One objection: This franchise keeps trafficking in robot violence that nevertheless feels dark and sadistic; here, a brave Autobot is interrogated by the enemy, then sawed in half from skull to sternum. I could have used less of that and more of Charlie, the newly mobile teenager, zooming through the Bay Area hills in the world’s coolest car.