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Float like a butterfly, sting like a ‘Bumblebee’

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Few franchises see the sort of gap between critical and commercial success that you get with the “Transformers” movies. The Michael Bay-led series has seen increasingly negative responses from critics, even while raking in massive dollars at the global box office. One would be forgiven for assuming that this pattern would continue.

Instead, out of nowhere, we get “Bumblebee.” It’s unheard of for a big-budget franchise like this to take a quantum leap forward in terms of quality – particularly when you’re half-a-dozen movies in – but that is the case here. This 1980s-set prequel manages to capture the energy, the gleeful spirit of the source material in a way that none of the previous iterations have.

It’s FUN, you see. And that fun comes from the respect given the audience – respect that reflects why they love the material in the first place.

“Bumblebee” is smart and sweet, blending the CGI-heavy action with a smaller, more intimate, more personal narrative that gives the movie a whiff of early Spielberg and the nostalgic bite and something like “The Iron Giant,” if perhaps not quite up to the emotional heights reached by those works.

The Autobots and Decepticons are at war on the planet Cybertron. At risk of being overrun by their evil opponents, members of the Autobot resistance are dispersed across the galaxy. Optimus Prime sends the young scout B-127 to Earth, where he is to establish a base and protect the planet while he waits for the rest of the Autobot cohort to regroup and meet him there.

Unfortunately, he lands right in the middle of a government training exercise led by military tough guy Jack Burns (John Cena, “Blockers”). He’s attacked by the soldiers and attempts to escape, only to be attacked by the Decepticon that tracked him. His last-ditch attempt to save himself destroys the Decepticon, but also results in a massive equipment failure (not to mention a vengeance-inspiring injury to Burns); his only hope is to disguise himself as a VW Beetle.

Meanwhile, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) is a teenager living in a small town outside San Francisco. She’s been rebelling since the death of her father a year earlier, much to the chagrin of her mother Sally (Pamela Adlon, “All Square”), her mom’s boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider, TV’s “Broad City”) and her bratty little brother Otis (Jason Drucker, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”).

While scavenging for parts for the car she’s restoring, she stumbles across the still-disguised B-127. In her efforts to get the car running, she wakes him up; as he has been rendered voiceless and can’t tell her his name, she names him Bumblebee. The two quickly bond, establishing a deep emotional rapport.

But there are some who are looking for Bumblebee … and they would do him harm. Agent Burns is still looking to exact his revenge on Bumblebee, while a pair of Decepticons manage to track him to Earth and are prepared to do whatever it takes to find out where Optimus Prime is – even if that means destroying the entire planet and everyone on it.

It’s up to Charlie and Bumblebee (with a little help from Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., “Love, Simon”), the boy next door who has a big crush on her) to figure out how to keep Bumblebee safe while also saving the world from the Decepticon menace.

This is easily the best installment in the “Transformers” franchise to date. It’s not even close. This movie has more genuine heart and humor in its first 20 minutes than the rest of the series has in its collective 12.5-hour runtime. It treats its story with care, treating the narrative as important rather than just a means to get from explosion to explosion. There’s a thoughtfulness that is utterly absent in all previous incarnations.

That’s not to say there isn’t any big dumb action. There is. It’s just that the big dumb action is actually in service to the plot rather than existing in spite of it. There are some great set pieces; no one wants a “Transformers” movie without robot fights. But action has never really been the franchise’s problem – it’s what happens around said action. That’s where “Bumblebee” outshines its predecessors.

Seriously – there are jokes. And I mean, actual jokes. Funny jokes. And the soundtrack is KILLER – no surprise, since the movie is set in 1987. And director Travis Knight (in his first live-action feature, no less) even manages to combine the two; anytime you can make a joke about a robot not liking The Smiths, you’ve got something figured out.

The cast is great, too. Steinfeld is a perfect choice for this, comfortable in big-budget fare, but also talented enough to go on a real emotional journey. John Cena continues his quest to be B-plus The Rock; this is a good way to go about it. Lendeborg and Adlon are good and Schneider is delightful. And there are a couple of voice cast surprises: Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux voice the main baddies.

“Bumblebee” is a Transformers movie, but it is also a coming of age story. It is an action blockbuster AND a story about love, loss and friendship. It is fun and funny, with great effects and a better soundtrack. An outstanding addition – not to mention a creative shot in the arm – for the once-stagnating franchise.

[4.5 out of 5]

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