It’s wild that of all the IP out there, the world now has seven live-action Transformers films. That’s enough to make the giant freaking robot franchise feel old-hat. Fortunately, while the unique style that makes a Michael Bay film stand out (like it or not) is missing from Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, it has more going for it than… *sigh* meets the eye. With a choice to, dare I say, ground the characters in a meaningful way, I found myself fairly engaged with the humans and robots forced to band together in an effort to stop a planet-sized toy robot. Plus, this one has a bunch of Transformers that take the shape of animals for reasons the movie doesn’t even try to explain because sometimes you just have to deal with silly fun.
The plot is exactly the same as every other Transformers movie. There was some sacred McGuffin on another planet that both the good and bad Transformers need. It gets banished to Earth, of all places. Despite the insistence that Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and his pals are new to Earth, our planet has still been secretly home to their race for a very long time. A couple of unwitting humans (Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback) discover the mysterious, lost item and find themselves teamed up with our Autobot heroes to stop the bad ones (the Terrorcons) from getting it and unleashing a world-threatening apocalypse. In this case, it’s Unicron, which is basically a Death Star with a mouth and the voice of Colman Domingo. Fortunately for the Autobots, they’ll have help from the Maximals, an advanced race of beast-robots, to help stop all this bad stuff from happening.
At two hours, without credits, the effort has been put in to minimize the time we need to spend on this story. Aside from Ramos’ Noah and Fishback’s Elena, there are only a few other human characters, including the mother of Noah, played by Luna Lauren Vélez, who, between this and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, seems to be going for Puerto Rican Movie Mom of the Summer. Similarly, this is the first Transformers film where an extra plot involving the government/military is not a factor. All we’re left with is a couple of people, the Autobots & Maximals, and the occasional of evil robots.
With a team of writers and director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II), they take this scaling down as an opportunity to entrust more time to the characters. That was a part of the success with Bay’s initial 2007 film, and it was a very winning factor for 2018’s Bumblebee. For Rise of the Beasts, I can happily say that it’s the first Transformers film where I actually cared about more of the robots than just Bumblebee and Optimus Prime. I also liked what Ramos and Fishback put in, but that’s a different story.
The humans work fine. It’s thankless stuff, particularly for Fishback. Still, aside from the chance to see representation in play for the lead human characters (let alone the voice cast for the robots), I appreciated the effort here. Ramos is struggling to find work and has a sick little brother. It’s easy stuff to get an audience on board with the character, but this is, again, the seventh entry in a toy franchise come to life. Making it broadly understandable comes with the package, and it doesn’t hurt that Ramos makes the most of it.
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Outside of this, yeah, there’s also a lot of robots to deal with. Chief among them is Mirage, impressively voiced by Pete Davidson. Having so many of these films rely on Bumblebee to be the most likable Transformer, it may have been a surprising change of pace, but it works. The character is funny, fits in with the tone of this film as needed, and impresses as one part of an action squad of giant robots. It should also be nice to know that Optimus Prime is in this film a lot. He arrived about an hour in on the first film and is usually a last resort in the sequels because he’s so powerful. Here, he’s a supporting player and is conflicted. (The mysterious whatsit could help send him and his kind back home, but at what cost!) Again, I was not expecting to see anything resembling an arc for the robot characters, but here we are.
The other Transformers are also fun, as there’s something resembling sincerity in these vocal performances, making you wish you could see in-person line readings that feature plenty of plot-related gibberish and inspiring monologues alike. Ron Perlman is chief among the robot talent as Optimus Primal, a gorilla-shaped Maximal. Other talent includes Peter Dinklage, Liza Koshy, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, and Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh. It’s an eclectic bunch.
As an action/sci-fi blockbuster, it is a shame to see a lack of more flare here. While the effects look good (ILM has never missed a beat with Transformers), compared to witnessing complete Bayhem, there is something of a perfunctory nature to the extended action beats that feature dozens of robots fighting each other. That is made up for occasionally through a couple of neat ideas. In particular, this may be the Transformers film with the most car chase-related set pieces, which is quite welcome. Other moments feel fittingly inspired by the 1994 setting, as Rise of the Beasts is full of classic hip-hop tracks, with a couple hitting just the right beat to once again emphasize that this is entirely made for embracing the fun of it all.
With a runtime that allows one not to feel exhausted by an overwhelming amount of robot spectacle, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a satisfying experience. It does justice to the lore, for what that’s worth to the fans, allows its key characters to shine well enough, and knows how to have fun. Beyond the notion of having these Maximals in plays, it’s not so much that this film is breaking new ground as much as it’s relying on a level of restraint while telling this particular story. Add on a bit of globetrotting between New York City and Peru, and there’s enough to make this giant robot nonsense worthwhile.