‘Bumblebee’ gets the most important stuff right

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For over a decade, director Michael Bay has been shoveling out “Transformers” movies that go heavy on incomprehensible plotting and unmemorable action scenes and light on the stuff that really counts.

Thankfully, “Bumblebee,” the latest entry in the “Transformers” franchise, get the important stuff, the characters and the story. Thanks mainly to these strengths, “Bumblebee” is easily, EASILY, the best live-action “Transformer” movie yet.

“Bumblebee” opens with the fall of the Transformers homeworld, Cybertron. Autobot leader Optimus Prime dispatches soldier B-127 to Earth where he crosses paths with Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teenager who teaches B a few things about life on Earth and re-names him “Bumblebee.” The girl and the robot soon develop a close friendship.

But Charlie and Bumblebee have company. Agent Burns (John Cena), a government man determined to bring Bumblebee in, is on the Autobot’s trail. Add in Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), a pair of evil Decepticons hoping Bumblebee can lead them to the Prime and the rest of the Autobots. With the help of Charlie and her neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), Bumblebee takes on the government and the Decepticons in a battle to save the world.

Where most “Transformers” flicks flashy chaotic action and thinly-drawn characters, “Bumblebee” leans less on spectacle in favor of telling a smaller, more intimate story. The core of the movie is the blossoming relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, and how that friendship opens up Charlie’s world.

To pull off a story like this, you need good acting, and Steinfeld is great. She portrays the awkwardness and discomfort of being the “weird kid” is such a beautifully convincing way. And watching her open up as her world gets bigger is a wonderful thing.

Supporting performances vary in quality. Cena is one furrow-browed note as Burns, and he doesn’t need to be anything else. But it would be nice if the character showed a bit more range. Lendeborg is great, matching Steinfeld’s awkward teen-ness and supplying a few laughs. Len Cariou is also a highlight as a TV-obsessed junkyard owner. I wouldn’t have opposed another scene or two from him.

While the dialogue isn’t anything to write home about, the writers have done a good job providing a solid foundation of good characterization. The characters the need depth have it. Bumblebee isn’t a good character just because he blows stuff up and transforms into a car. He’s a good character because we can relate to him on an emotional level. His friendship with Charlie gives an emotional heart to the actions scenes and makes you care about the outcome. That’s good writing.

All this “Bumblebee” may only be possible because Michael Bay isn’t in the director’s chair. Helming this movie is Travis Knight, who previously directed the excellent “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Knight may not have Bay’s immediately identifiable style, but he also is more interested in telling a cohesive story and making sure the characters work.

That doesn’t mean “Bumblebee” is bereft of cool action sequences. The Cybertron stuff is epic, and the big climactic fight feels a bit more like a gritty fistfight than most other computer graphics-heavy finales do. But the characters and especially Charlie and Bumblebee’s friendship stick with you after the credits roll. That kind of character and storytelling beat explosions and robot fights any day of the week.

4 ¼ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13

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Thanks to Fat Cats in Rexburg for providing screenings for movie reviews on EastIdahoNews.com.