For his live-action debut, Travis Knight (filmmaker of intelligently made stop-motion-animated young people’s movies) slips into Michael Bay boomboom mode. Well, Bay produced the picture, so what did we expect? Rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

It comes out of the sky and lands with a flaming ka-boom on John Cena. No way is he, playing a gung-ho Army guy, going to take that lying down. “Light it up!” he yells. He and his squad then proceed to blast the bejesus out of the visitor. Welcome to Earth, you miserable bucket of bolts from outer space. Wounded and feeling very much unwanted, the alien creature limps away.

“Bumblebee” begins.

And the Hasbro-inspired “Transformers” franchise gets another chapter. A prequel, this time, set in 1987. All the previous five — Five? Mercy! — are set in this century.

This one is different, the makers will have you know. Unlike all the earlier ones, Michael Bay — the original Mr. BoomBoom — didn’t direct it. Travis Knight got the nod. “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “The Boxtrolls,” intelligently made stop-motion-animated young people’s movies, are on his résumé. Reason for hope there.

Sigh. For his live-action debut, Knight slips into Bay boomboom mode. Well, Bay produced the picture, so what did we expect?

“Bumblebee,” named for the fan-favorite, somewhat-childlike yellow Autobot, is a kinder, gentler “Transformers.”

For the first time in the franchise’s history, it’s got a female protagonist. Named Charlie and played by Hailee Steinfeld (“The Edge of Seventeen”), she’s a tomboyish teen mourning the recent death of her dad and feeling angsty and at odds with her mother (Pamela Adlon) and mom’s new, dweeby boyfriend (Stephen Schneider). When the besieged Bumblebee comes into her life, disguised as a grime-encrusted junkyard Volkswagen Bug, she feels protective of him.

Handy with tools (restoring a vintage Corvette with her dad was a cherished bonding experience), she hides Bee in her home’s garage and repairs him both physically and emotionally. Sensing he’s traumatized (Welcome to Earth! Kablooey!), she gently strokes his metallic face. She gives him hugs of reassurance. He, in turn, in a clumsy-puppyish manner, accidentally trashes her house, befriends her dog and helps her toilet-paper the house of a hateful rival. Good times.

Until Cena and the Army, along with two killer Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux), show up. Robo torture, MMA-style ‘bot-to-‘bot battles (spin kick, body stomp), car chases and massive explosions ensue. It is, after all, still a “Transformers” movie.

And with Christmas at hand, there are “Transformer” toys to be sold. Ladies and gentlemen, start your cash registers.


★★ “Bumblebee,” with Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider; and the voices of Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux. Directed by Travis Knight, from a screenplay by Christina Hodson. 119 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence. Opens Dec. 21 at multiple theaters.