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"Transformers" is dutifully entertaining but slightly less than meets the eye.

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If you haven't noticed, a battle is exploding across multiplex screens all over the country. The combatants are the evil directing styles of Michael Bay and all the decent ideas he stole from other action-adventure movies to make "Transformers." If you have to be told this is the live-action movie version of a Hasbro toy from the '80s, you must be from another planet or maybe some lame chick. The movie rests so assuredly on the near-universal renown of its brand — which has undergone its own circular transformation from toy to cartoon series to movie and back again — it can repeat a phrase from the old theme song and have no fear that anyone will miss the reference.

The first half of the movie is surprisingly calm, and not bad if all you are in it for is to see some vehicles transform into robots and blow a bunch of stuff up. The second half is a total mess, pandemonium in the sense of hell to some but probably box office magic to the legions who don't mind seeing bits of their old favorite summer movies welded together like a giant, shape-shifting Spielberlucas monster. I noticed brief moments in movie history from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Jaws," "The Abyss," the "Star Wars" franchise, "Independence Day," "The Matrix," and even "E.T.," and I wasn't even looking for it.

All of this is smothered with what can by now be called "old Bay" seasoning, an unsightly mix of low-angle-photographed, slow-motioned, wind-blown, color-saturated, sweaty-browed, catch-phrase-spouting machismo the director made his name on — most memorably in his "Bad Boys" movies. Anyone who's seen them knows exactly what they are going to get. But it's not for me or you that I write these words of warning: I fear for the children.

"Transformers" will indoctrinate generations in a story about essentially nothing, except that it involves amazingly cool robots fighting through building after building over precious humanity. And it will reap untold millions for its backers. Bay nearly brought DreamWorks to its knees with his last helicopter-fest, "The Island." And so, as a friend who's worked with Bay speculated to me, he probably took some advice this time. "Transformers" is still overstuffed, unoriginal and pompous, but for a kids' action movie, it isn't terrible. To kids of all ages everywhere, that means it's fantastic. 144 min. (PG-13) S

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