Reviews: 'Bumblebee' flies, 'Aquaman' drowns
So this is Christmas.
"Bumblebee" and "Aquaman" lead the blockbuster offerings during the first holiday box office season without a new "Star Wars" movie since 2014.
And while those choices are underwhelming, one manages to surpass expectations, while the other is exactly the dud you expected.
"Bumblebee," the "Transformers" spinoff that no one requested, is easily the franchise's best entry, if only because it's the first movie in the series to carry any semblance of human emotion.
Essentially a take on "E.T." with a yellow robot car in the friendly alien role, "Bumblebee" is goofy, playful fun, a tale of cross-species friendship and a throwback piece of '80s nostalgia. (There are also strands of "The Iron Giant," the "Herbie" movies and "Stranger Things" in its DNA.)
Set in 1987 — if the film didn't tell you this up front, it's soundtrack cues and frequent references to "Alf" and other pop culture of the day would surely tip you off — it follows Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, incapable of giving a bad performance), a teenage outcast who fixes up the yellow Volkswagen Beetle she finds in a junkyard.
She's stunned to learn the car is Bumblebee, a robot warrior sent from the planet Cybertron after a loud, clanging battle that opens the film. Here we learn how Bumblebee's voice was taken from him and the answers to other questions no one asked, and the oppressive clashing of CGI metal sets this up as just another of Michael Bay's insipid "Transformers" sensory assaults.
But Bay's not in control here, the reigns have been handed to "Kubo and the Two Strings" director Travis Knight, and he's far more interested in grounding the story on planet Earth. (All the perfunctory "Transformers" nonsense, including the story of two Decepticons sent to track down Bumblebee and John Cena as a military man, feels like a contractual obligation, and Knight stages a thrilling non-car crash that seems to be a direct rebuke of Bay.)
Charlie and her 15-foot-tall, sometimes-a-car pal engage in various acts of silliness, including toilet papering the house of a catty bully, and "Bumblebee" sells a convincing friendship between the pair. Knight is able to milk the softness of Bumblebee's eyes, which are like two big, blue flashlights, and he gives the robot giant — and the story — a beating heart.
"Aquaman," on the other hand, is all wet.
A movie based on the King of the Sea has been a joke since the days of "Entourage," and it's hard to think that Vinnie Chase could have done much worse with the property.
Jason Momoa plays the title character, and his efforts to bring some spunk and attitude to the role — this is an Aquaman who pounds beers at seaside bars — are at odds with a script filled with numbing exposition about birth rights, magical tridents and a power struggle in an underwater world.
Poor Patrick Wilson, who plays Orm, Aq's half-brother, spends most of the movie underwater, bobbing up and down on screen, spewing waterlogged clunkers about kingdoms and the true ruler of Atlantis. Willem Dafoe looks only slightly less embarrassed, but as a veteran of his share of bad movies, he's learned how to weather the storm.
Amber Heard is Mera, stuck in a will-they-or-won't-they game of flirtation with Aq; the googly eyes Steinfeld's character makes with her nerdy neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) in "Bumblebee" are more convincing (and age appropriate).
"Aquaman" director James Wan stages one eye-popping fight sequence, inside a house where he twirls the camera in a series of 360-degree spins as Aquaman's mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) takes on a room full of foes, but otherwise his film is awash in expensive looking CGI effects to no end. There's a vague message about the environment meant to give the film a social conscience; sorry, when you're polluting cinemas, you don't get to wag your fingers at humanity trashing the oceans.
Momoa has a sly charm, but it's wasted here; maybe as a bad guy opposite the Rock in a landlocked feature he'd fare better.
Sadly, we've come to expect this level of banality from the DC Universe, but "Bumblebee" proves that given the right elements, it's possible to rise above expectations. "Bumblebee" buzzes, "Aquaman" sinks.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Running time: 142 minutes