Where “Bumblebee” (2018) and “Mary Poppins Returns” meet
This is the first Transformers movie that really felt like playing with the toys on a Saturday afternoon, especially in a mash-up with your G.I. Joe dolls. Heck, Barbie and Ken damned near makes cameos.
No one is going to mistake two hours of product placement for Shakespeare, but there is enough genuine heart to keep things humming along.
So…Charlie, (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenaged girl who lost her father to a heart attack two years ago. The rest of the family has moved on, but she cannot. Obsessed with rebuilding the Camero she and her dad used to play with on Saturdays, she comes across a decrepit yellow VW Beetle and falls in love with it, taking it home.
If you know the catch-phrase “Robots in disguise” (or “robots in the skies” as we used to say) you’ll pretty much guess the rest of this.
Pro wrestler John Cena plays G.I. Joe…I mean, “Agent Burns” who finds himself in the middle of the Autobot-Decepticon struggle (and yes, that’s Angela Bassett voicing the Decepticon “Scatter”!) and, well, you don’t need more information than already given. You know if this is for you or not. If it is, it delivers the goods. Kids will be thrilled at the teenaged angst and robo-damage, adults will be amused by the snarky humor and relieved that the action doesn’t look like it was edited in a mix-master. There is actually some clarity in spacial geometry going on, something Micheal Bay seemed allergic to.
And there is enough real heart to make you care, as Charlie and Bumblebee forge a believable girl-and-her-Autobot bond that heals them both. Its genuine fun.
And genuinely moving, tugging a few heart-strings. There is a scene where Charlie sees her mother and little brother and new step-father sitting on the couch, snuggling on the couch, Charlie unseen in shadow. She cannot join them. The death of her father hurts too much, and that pain makes her an outsider, alone and bleeding emotionally. Walled off. She talks about how eager she is to leave home.
And when, in a later scene, that family she has (in some ways) rejected comes to her rescue, puts THEIR butts on the line to help her, and help her save the world, she is able to see their love, see her life in perspective, accept an aspect of “adulting” that is so damned painful: we will lose everything we love. But we will find new passions, new friends, new family…if we let ourselves.
The search for the emotional core of a story like this is essential — without it, all you have is action beats and jokes. And predictably, they stick with the basics: a girl’s love for her father, the wish to build a home. Friends, acceptance by peers, young love, a mother moving on to new happiness, soldiers recognizing and honoring each other across species lines. You can see the strings, but they work.
“Mary Poppins” pulls a similar trick. By creating a shattered family (the death of a wife and mother) in peril (impending loss of the family home) you INSTANTLY create rapport with the audience, simply by disrupting the basic “flow” of that adulting river: building a nest, raising children, falling in love. Seeking the stability that enables growth.
The children need a stable home, the father needs healing and the sense that he is being a provider, the adult sister’s “ship has sailed” for romance, and there are snakes in the darkness (there were no real enemies in the original “Mary Poppins” as I recall) ready to bite. Into this mix comes the “practically perfect” catalyst (I was tickled to learn that her name is a pun. Apparently, the term “Pop-In” is British slang for a quick, unexpected visit. Get it?)
So “Mary Poppins Returns” is about a damaged family seeking the “magic” of love and life that bonds us together. There is a wonderful scene where Emily Blunt as Mary sees that her work is done, the family is happy…but that she herself cannot share that warmth. She is a catalyst, unchanged by the change she brings to the world.
“Bumblebee” deals with a similar shattered family, but one that has more security, and has moved on emotionally, isolating the daughter as the one who needs healing. Her arc is one of opening her heart again, which means that there are predictable action and emotion beats as she gets back on that “Adulting” path that her father’s death jolted her out of.
There is just enough honesty in that to make a convincing “imitation of life.” Between the two movies, there are almost every basic message you need to become an adult:
Acceptance of loss
Accepting new friends and the possibility of love
Recognizing threats to the family
Forgiving and admitting mistakes
Learning to play
Working to support the things and people you love
And there is a scene in Mary Poppins Returns where we are told that we will find what we have lost when we look “where the lost things go.”
And the father, mourning the death of his beloved wife, is able to see her eyes, her smile, her walk in their children. That death is conquered in the creation of new life. And realizes that while he thought he was caring for his children, it was just as true that they were really caring for him.
I felt that. We’ve all lost mothers, fathers, friends, mentors. And if you aren’t connected to the flow of life, you can become overwhelmed by grief.
The antidote for fear…is love.
No one will mistake either film for a masterpiece. But both are good, solid stories about people struggling to find meaning in life, and finding comfort in the bonds of family and friendship, in embracing love and mastering fear.
Do that in a story, and people will cheer. Do it in your life…and you are walking the “Thousand Mile Road” of mastering your existence, one step at a time.
Well done, both of ‘em.
(if you would like to explore connecting the internal and external “families” of the heart…please join us in February for a totally FREE five-part webinar THE NEW SOULMATE PROCESS. Sign up at www.soulmateprocess.com)