Bumblebee (2018)

2019 #83
Travis Knight | 114 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 16:9 | USA & China / English | PG / PG-13

Bumblebee

The live-action Transformers movies, eh? Seemingly hated by everyone, critics and fans alike, and yet combined the first five grossed almost $4.4 billion at the global box office. Nonetheless, with the fifth one being the lowest grossing so far, and Michael Bay finally making good on his oft-repeated desire to leave the series’ director’s chair, someone clearly felt it was time for a change. That brings us to Bumblebee, a spin-off (it’s focused around the de facto second-in-command Transformer) cum prequel (it’s set in the ’80s, explaining some events that occurred before the 2007 movie) cum soft reboot (with redesigned characters and nothing that explicitly ties it to the Bay films, this could be the start of a whole new continuity). Did fans finally get what they want? Well, maybe, but it obviously didn’t work for the wider audience: the film took $468 million worldwide, which is good in itself but still represents almost a $140 million drop from the previous film. And it didn’t work for me, either: Bumblebee isn’t necessarily any better than the best of the Bay-era films, it’s just middling in different ways.

The film begins much like Man of Steel: launching us into a conflict between aliens on a distant planet. I criticised that film for throwing us into the deep end with a bunch of hard-sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and I find similar fault here. I guess the point is to get an Epic Action Sequence up front (unlike Man of Steel, where it’s political arguing, here it’s a full-blown battle) and to show off the new-look old-style Transformers, which have been modelled more on their appearance in the ’80s cartoon series. But it does nothing to dispel the notion that this is nothing like the Bay films — it’s just another frenzy of metal-on-metal and garbled mythology. Then Bumblebee, who’s mainly identifiable as “the yellow Transformer”, gets sent off to Earth, where he accidentally winds up in a scrap with some military types. More action, but with a slight change of pace.

Bayhem never dies

Only after all this has gone down do we finally get to the supposed point of the movie. We’re introduced to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager in 1980s California who likes listening to 1980s music and wearing 1980s clothes and doing other 1980s things because this is set in the 1980s. She’s down on her luck for various reasons, but what she really wants is a car. She finds one in a boat scrapyard (totally logical), but that turns out to be Bumblebee in disguise, and suddenly she has a giant robot for a best friend. But Captain Military Man (John Cena — I have no idea what his character name was. I could look it up, but this was more amusing), who Bumblebee fought with in that second action sequence, is on the hunt for our big yellow friend, and so are some Decepticons (the bad robots).

The “a girl and her robot” angle is what the film was sold on, combined with the ’80s setting to suggest a throwback to movies of that era, like E.T. and so on. I quite like it as a concept — it’s certainly a change of pace from the increasingly overblown city-destroying world-saving antics of the earlier films — but it’s the execution that disappointed me. It takes too long to get it up and running. Even after the palaver I’ve already described, it spins its wheels on Charlie getting Bumblebee started, on comedic interludes with her family, on establishing a wannabe-love-interest for her (a guy who both works opposite her at a fairground and is her next door neighbour, yet apparently she’s never even noticed. Incidentally, I can’t remember his name either). There’s altogether too much time spent on the military and Decepticons hunting ‘Bee, too, especially considering it amounts to little that’s meaningful. I mean, specifically two Decepticons turn up on Earth, and they’re therefore the film’s primary villains, but I can’t remember their names either. Their personalities amount to “the one who plans” and “the one who just wants to shoot everything”.

A girl and her robot... which is disguised as a car

But after nearly an hour of this faff, the film gets good, with Charlie and Neighbour Boy getting up to some enjoyable ’80s kids’ movie-style antics with their friendly giant robot. But oh, then it’s time for the climax, so it’s back to explosions and indistinguishable chunks of metal hitting each other.

This is why it’s frustrating to me, because for a brief bit of time in the middle you see what I think this movie really wanted to be, and what I really wanted it to be, before it descends back into Bayhem-with-calmer-editing. Incoming director Travis Knight (whose only previous credit is the exceptional Kubo and the Two Strings) handles individual sequences well, suggesting he was a canny hire, but the film’s problem is bigger than that. The wonky pace and structure devotes time in the wrong places, leading to underdeveloped character beats (the big payoff for Charlie’s emotional subplot actually made me laugh out loud, which was not the intended effect) and taking too long to get to where it wants to be — just as it’s getting good, it has to dart off into a finale that doesn’t have enough impact, because we’re not really invested in the villains either.

Talking of what the movie “should’ve been”, a word on the certification. Bumblebee was originally given a 12A by the BBFC, just like every other modern blockbuster, but there was some kerfuffle in Australia that led to it being cut down under, and it seems that version was tamer enough to get a PG in the UK, so that’s the one that was released here (and, I think, everywhere outside the US). It loses about six seconds of injury and violence, apparently. There was a time earlier this century when anything below PG-13 was a bad thing, because they thought teens/adults would write the film off as being kids’ fare. Maybe that’s changed. Maybe it just doesn’t apply in the UK. Maybe they thought being a PG wouldn’t put grownups off (as an adult, who looks at the certificate, especially for the sixth movie in a well-established franchise?) but would allow more kids in. Who knows. It is what it is. I’m not sure it’s worth caring about.

This cute dog is also in it a bit

Also, another thing about differing releases: I wish they’d put it out on 3D Blu-ray somewhere, so that I could’ve bought that version. As noted at the start, I watched the 4K UHD disc, and the (upscaled) picture was fine but not spectacular (aside from one or two bits, and the usual benefits of HDR), but there were whole chunks I feel would’ve benefited from 3D. The Bay movies certainly did. I know those of us who enjoy the format are more in the minority than ever, but it seems that interest remains in some markets (looking at other titles that didn’t get a 3D release in the US and UK but did elsewhere, countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, and India seem to be among the lucky ones), so I don’t know why this hasn’t turned up in any of them.

Anyway. If Bumblebee managed its structure and pace better it’d be a lot more fun. I feel like, even with just the material that made it to the final cut, you could do a radical re-edit and turn it into a much better movie — ditch the Cybertron crap, cut way back on the baddies hunting for ‘Bee, get the relationship between Charlie and ‘Bee up and running faster, then focus on their teenage hijinks. Instead, someone thought it would be neat to bookend the film’s heart with a bunch of Bay-esque whooshbangery, and it gets in the way.

3 out of 5

Bumblebee is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.