Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May
To say that Bumblebee is the best Transformers film to date is both fair and faint praise. The bar was low—very low. But like the DC universe before it, seems once the dead weight is dropped, a franchise is given new life and a breath of fresh, if familiar, air.
The film is the first release after Paramount and Hasbro finally realized things under Michael Bay were not working (duh?). They created a writers’ room to brainstorm ideas—which is great and all, though a Bumblebee solo film really seemed a non-brainer. Still, using other writers, and more importantly another director, frees the property to try new things; and the two best choices coming out of this first effort were hiring director Travis Knight and going smaller rather than exponentially bigger in scale.
Knight is an animator by trade, but with the massive critical and commercial success of his directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings, his star shot up and he became the most logical choice to bring actual character to the denizens of Cybertron. If you’ve seen Kubo, you know Knight understands how to mix the entire emotional gamut with rollicking adventure, and so he does in certainly the most heartfelt entry of the series. Going in hand, the fact that Bumblebee features only three main robots allows for an intimacy and closer examination of each than we’ve ever had before.
That being said, Bumblebee treads a lot of old ground, and feels very much the soft reboot it is apparently intended to be. As before, we explore a teenager’s relationship with her car while being hounded by alien foes, a shadowy U.S. government agency, and a set of kind but goofy parents. Oh, and of course the plucky sidekick. Not sure if you so much needed a writers’ room to come up with all that as much as just watching every TF thus far. So zero points for originality there.
But, we are mercifully spared certain other tropes. I can gleefully report that there is not one slow-mo rotating pan . . . no orgasmic shots of the army and their secret toys . . . and not one character pees on another. Like I said, the bar is low.
The humor is still very much there, but elevated out of the snickering adolescent vein and into a more organic, integrated, and mature sensibility, while still being quite silly at times. But it usually hits the right notes, landing the joke or gag at just the right beat and tone. The military, for its part, is in the background where it serves best, keeping them a menacing threat rather than serving as eye candy or recruitment ads.
Most importantly though, the characters—human and robot alike—feel like real people. Young Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teen on the cusp of adulthood, dealing with the tragic loss of her father while the rest of her family has seemingly moved on. She adds that to the struggle to find her self-confidence and happiness again, and so her journey feels both real and relatable. Screenwriter Christina Hodson expresses the tribulations of that world clearly and honestly, and connects the two lost souls in Charlie and Bumblebee in a sweet and believable way. Meanwhile, Steinfeld is able to use her natural likeability to balance and sweet sort of wholesomeness with Charlie’s punk rocker edge.
Bumblebee himself experiences a difficult journey, mostly in his attempts to navigate Earth culture and build trust with Charlie. However (and I wouldn’t call this a spoiler since it’s the crux of the film), the choice to have Bumblebee’s memory missing through much of the film dilutes much of that development, making him more of a lost puppy than an interactive sentient being. The decision seems mostly in order to clear the way for certain jokes, gags, and for Charlie to be the responsible one of the pair. But still feels something of a cheat. Still, it also keeps the story focused on the two of them and their reciprocal needs rather than on the larger plot of saving the planet, so I might accept the trade.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for action. The film offers its fair share, mostly coming from the initial battle on Cybertron (which is worth the price of admission to G1 fans) that sets off the events as well as the pair of Decepticons tearing through California. But here again, each punch, blaster fire, and explosion feels less gratuitous and more earned given that the fighters are far fewer and the concerns much deeper. This setup also allows for something we really haven’t seen before: Decepticons being . . . deceptive! And humans being smart enough to point it out! Ah, breathe it in!
And speaking of action, it’s nice to finally be able to SEE the fights! Pulling the camera out for much longer gives us a true sense of the choreography behind the battles, and when we move in, it’s to really feel the blows. The effects finally service the story rather than the other way round, another tick in its favor.
It all makes a far more straightforward story that actually fits, is easy and enjoyable to follow, and with characters you enjoy going on the ride with. But, as seems to be a recurring theme, there’s also a flipside to that. The continuity between this film and the others in the franchise is confusing at best, contradictory at worst. Certain aspects appear to line up with other entries, only to have details make that a completely impossibility. It would spoil too much to talk specifics, but suffice to say that if this was meant as a clean slate reboot, then there are WAY too many direct references to the previous films. And if it’s meant to be a direct prequel to those, then there’s WAY too much that doesn’t add up. Either way, it doesn’t match up right. So the best approach might be to take it as a complete standalone and not think too much about (sigh, the tagline of this franchise).
Taken on its own however, there’s plenty of fun to be had. John Cena fits in especially well, bringing a wry humor to his gruff Agent Burns. If he’s the sub for Mark Wahlburg moving forward, I’ll take that trade any day of the week. Similarly, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.’s comic relief/love interest Memo is less the caricature we’re used to and more of an endearing misfit whose company we enjoy and who we root for to the end. Even the parents played by Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider pull back from the inept absurdity of those past to be loving, intelligent, if sometimes misguided, caretakers.
In summation, Bumblebee is definitely a step in the right direction if this incarnation of the franchise has any hope of continuing. Sure, it’s derivative and doesn’t exactly push the universe into new territory, but it does an excellent job of the reverse, grounding it in a far more relatable way and finally making the characters feel more real. If this were truly the first Transformers film we ever saw, I’d call it a great start and would be excited to see where the series went from here. As it stands, this will at least be the film I rewatch when I need my TF fix, and I hope that it serves as yet another lesson to the creators on what works and what needs to still be fixed. At least they seem to be listening for the most part. Who knows what the future will bring, but for now at least we can say with definitive proof that it could have been worse.
YANG: Welcome to Marwen
I really wanted to like Welcome to Marwen . . . I really did. I was the perfect audience for such a film: I’d seen the documentary Marwencol years ago and was absolutely fascinated by Mark Hogencamp’s story. And of course, as creator of the Highlander: Veritas series, I am intimately familiar with the world of 1/6 scale action figures and their amazing potential to tell stories from the heart. And how can you go wrong with the likes of Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, and director Robert Zemeckis?
Well, as it turns out—and I can’t believe I’m the one saying this—too much focus was paid to the world of the figures and not enough to reality. The irony abounds.
The real story here revolves around the horrific attack on Hogencamp (Carell) by five men outside a bar in New York back in 2000. After awaking from a 9-day coma, Hogencamp had no memory of his prior life. It was a long, painful journey toward physical recovery, and far longer dealing with the post-traumatic stress of the incident.
As a coping mechanism, he used 1/6 scale (12 inch) figures to build the town of Marwen (later dubbed Marwencol for reasons explained in the film), a World War II Belgian stronghold against the Nazi’s. Each figure was likened to Hogencamp and the friends, family, and neighbors. No longer able to function as an illustrator, he turned to documenting his characters’ fantastic adventures in camera, garnering enough acclaim to have his work displayed in an exhibition.
The movie stays mostly true to that story, though naturally takes some dramatic license. It frames its tale against Hogencamp’s struggle to find the courage to confront his attackers on the eve of their potential parole. And equally vexing for him, we follow his attempts to court the beautiful new neighbor next door, Nicol (Mann). All of this is a perfect setting for dramatic development . . . if it was just better developed.
While the film does explore the ramifications of each real-life emotional element, it feels secondary to the fantasy world Hogencamp has created. Alternate reality is a wonderful device for allegory, yet the story being told in “Marwen” is mostly disconnected and independent, with adventures seeming far more isolated than representative. Add to that, the events are treated comically, even flippantly, for the most part, robbing them of the impact and gravitas they really need to be true allegory.
Case in point, there seems to be disproportionate amount of attention placed on the fact that Hogencamp has a fondness for wearing and collecting women’s shoes, using them as a way to connect to and express his affinity for the gender. It is heavily suggested that this revelation directly led to his assault.
Given such personal and dramatic importance, you’d think this would be treated with a deft hand, yet the first time Hogencamp’s alter-ego, “Cap’n Hogie,” encounters a pair of women’s shoes, the event is treated quite literally as a joke, setting the audience up to laugh rather than relate. That conditioning continues throughout with various other elements, so much so that laughs could be heard cascading throughout the theatre during what should have been dramatic moments. It wasn’t simple rudeness or immaturity, it was a result of a disconnect in tone.
That disconnect permeates the film, including between the characters. When it comes to romance, Hogencamp seems to completely dismiss the women who seem to care most for him in favor of Nicole. And by the end, it seems too late for him, and undeserved, to try and reconcile those dismissed relationships. Similarly, the great catharsis at the end seems more to do with Cap’n Hogie than with Hogencamp, making the climax of the film feel hollow and unearned.
The actors all do they best they can, but really only Carell and Mann are given any kind of significant development. Carell does an admirable job trying to balance the humor and drama of the piece, but I think even he isn’t quite sure where the line is meant to be, and thus there is a slight out-of-jointness to his performance. While there’s no question Carell expresses Mark’s legitimate struggles and tragedies, we are left feeling like we haven’t quite gotten to know the real Hogencamp. Whether those lost elements were ever scripted, or simply left on the cutting room floor to make more room for “Hogie,” only our blu-ray may tell.
Leslie Mann’s Nicol is the most authentic of the cast, as the outsider attempting to understand Hogencamp and his world while dealing with her own significant issues. Her escape from a jealous and abusive ex grounds in her a vulnerability that seems to match well with Hogencamp’s, and thus their blossoming closeness seems somewhat natural—to a degree. But she struggles to be supportive while still presenting boundaries, and ultimately their connection feels one-sided at best, or ultimately nonexistent at worst.
The other characters serve mostly as window-dressing, or simply filler for Marwen. Several characters whom we are introduced to and expect to revisit are left by the wayside (in the real world at least), while other fly-by characters are given a prominence wholly undeserved. It all speaks to the imbalance of the film, with emphasis placed far too often on the wrong thing and in the wrong proportions.
Which circles us back to the fantasy world of “Marwen.” Robert Zemeckis certainly has a pedigree for effects-laden tales, and so there’s no surprise that the CG-animated figures all look and move with amazing detail (I can confirm that every body, joint, and hand is accurate to what you can get “off the shelf” on a figure). But that’s also part of the problem: there’s a palpable “look at this!” tone throughout the vignettes, exalting the results over the meaning behind them. Roughly 50–60% of the film takes place in “Marwen,” meaning we’re almost lucky to get as much real-world exposure as we do. And when that time in “Marwen” is ultimately wasted on either trivial or loose allegory, it defaults to a loss of development. To be clear, there certainly IS connection between the two worlds, but those connections needed to be broader, more significant, and most importantly, needed to express a more dramatic tone. Without it, we’re left watching a poor-man’s Pixar.
It’s shame that with the talent and production resources available that the real Hogencamp’s story couldn’t be as fully realized as it was the smaller, more intimate documentary. I doubt he’d be thrilled by the preoccupation here with his women’s shoe fixation, or the dearth of insight into the therapeutic benefits of his fantastical world and what it actually meant to him. Welcome to Marwen is a beautiful story told by people who likely had noble sentiments and tried their best, but didn’t quite understand it, and thus lacked the ability to properly express it. Despite an excellent cast, lovely performances, and amazing effects, you’re far better off watching Marwencol, the original documentary. And perhaps there’s a significance hidden between those two names: Marwen just isn’t quite complete without that last but vital bit.