After Michael Bay set a hilariously low bar for the Transformers films with five long, punishing spectacles of bombastic excess, there was nowhere for the franchise to go but up. With a capable new director (Kubo and the Two Strings’ Travis Knight) at the helm, Bumblebee is a reboot/prequel/spin-off that trades noisy, incoherent mayhem for a more toned down, Spielbergian coming-of-age approach, with unexpectedly delightful results.

Expanding on the series’ already-complicated mythology, the film opens with a fierce CGI civil war on planet Cybertron between the Autobots and Decepticons, leaving Autobot resistance leader Optimus Prime no choice but to send a young lieutenant, B-127, to Earth to set up a new base. He crash lands in 1987 California and finds himself hunted by Sector 7, and suffers violent encounters with another evil Decepticon, forcing him into hiding disguised as a VW Beetle.

The film quickly morphs into a warm, family-friendly comedy-adventure (reminiscent of E.T. or Short Circuit) by introducing feisty teenage loner Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a former high school diver turned angsty Smiths fan, still grieving over her father’s death and her mother’s ability to move on. She discovers the Beetle in a scrap yard, no clue that her soon-to-be best friend/mentor is actually an Autobot hunted by all sorts of bad guys. From here, Bumblebee focuses largely on the sweet friendship between the two wounded souls as they navigate their confusing, violent, Reagan-era world, filled with absent parents, mean girl rivals, and murderous robots (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux). The 80s nostalgia is laid on thick, with references to The Breakfast Club, Tab cola and or ALF, and a soundtrack comprised of familiar jukebox hits. We’re even Rickrolled in one scene. What could have ended up a corny, uneven corporate mixtape results in one of the year’s most pleasant surprises; a blockbuster unashamed of its own big, human heart.

Bumblebee | Directed by Travis Knight (US 2018) with Hailee Steinfeld, Dylan O’Brien. Starts December 20:

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