Transformers: Rise of the Beasts premieres in theaters on June 9, 2023.
You son of a gun, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts — I’m back in. Consider me as shocked as anyone to be genuinely excited for more Transformers movies after the disappointing-at-best Age of Extinction and The Last Knight. The one-two combo of Bumblebee and Rise of the Beasts is a course correction that unites beloved Transformer clans, introduces decent human characters, and spotlights metal-crunching action that’s an upgrade from the nondescript animated slop we’ve been served in Michael Bay’s last few movies. It’s certainly not going to win over the Academy (outside a possible special effects nomination), but director Steven Caple Jr. executes Rise of the Beasts as a get-the-job-done summer crowd-pleaser that makes me feel like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons again, only on a grander and more exciting scale.
Picking up the story after 2018’s Bumblee, Rise of the Beasts sticks to the ancient era of 1994, giving it some comfortable distance from the stink of Transformers movies we try not to talk about anymore. Anthony Ramos stars as Brooklyn electronics wiz and ex-soldier Noah Diaz, who acts as the Autobots’ human correspondent, and as he comically grapples with the reality of mechanized aliens driving Earth’s highways, the irreplaceable voice of Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime reveals a new artifact of the day that must be recovered before it falls into the hands of the world-eating, planet-sized villain Unicron. It’s exactly as cookie-cutter a plot as you’d expect from a movie like this.
The animal-themed Maximals aren’t the first non-Autobot or Decepticon faction to appear in these Transformers movies, but they certainly make a more impactful entrance (I’d already forgotten about the Dinobots in Age of Extinction). Ron Perlman’s guttural bellow as lowland gorilla bot Optimus Primal meets the character’s barrel-chested imposition, while Michelle Yeoh soothes as the wise and majestic peregrine falcon bot Airazor. There’s a clear distinction between Optimus Primal’s connection with nature and Earth’s inhabitants versus the untrusting and more militant Optimus Prime, and it goes beyond the visual contrasts of Maximal robotics layered with fur and feathers against Autobot detailing with vibrant Pimp My Ride designs. They took me right back to my days watching the early morning cartoon Beast Wars: Transformers before-school with a bowl of cereal, and Rise of the Beasts effectively pays off that nostalgia (even if my chatty favorite Rattrap is sorely missed).
The Maximals are given the opportunity to shine because we aren’t bombarded with the headache-inducing Michael Bay action sequences that tanked the later Transformers films. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak holds the camera steady as Autobots, Maximals, and Unicron’s Terrorcon henchmen engage in their vehicular slaughters, allowing clean and crisp animation to showcase what exciting Transforms fight choreography looks like. Liza Koshy’s Autobot Arcee is a guns-akimbo Ducati 916 that darts around like a seasoned assassin, while Optimus Primal employs a thunderous ground-and-pound ferocity. An array of fighting techniques from the Terrorcons keeps violent altercations fresh, whether that’s tow truck Battletrap swinging his chain weapon or neon-pink-detailed Nightbird’s aerial maneuvers that scare the engine oil out of Mirage. Rise of the Beasts might keep its battles more contained, but that allows both combatants and move combinations to shine – no more of Bay’s constant cutting that makes action scenes feel like they’ve been run through a junkyard blender.
The voice cast behind rubber-burning heroes and villains are suitably fitted, especially Pete Davidson’s wisecracking Mirage. He’s the Autobot with the most personality, dropping Wu-Tang references and juvenile jokes like Davidson would in reality on stage. Peter Dinklage is the most unrecognizable as Unicron’s right-hand henchman Scourge – not to say he’s not good, but Scourge is a boilerplate baddie with a Robotic Mean #1 vocal range that might be a selection in a generic video game character creator. Otherwise, you can hear Coleman Domingo’s intense sternness behind Unicron’s threats as much as the gleeful good-heartedness when Cristo Fernández basically recreates his Ted Lasso performance as Dani Rojas, this time as a Volkswagon van in Wheeljack. Names like Michaela Jaé Rodriguez might not be first fan-casting choices for Terrorcons like Nightbird, but she makes it known why she was selected with the way she personifies a robot made of cold steel and whirring gears.
Not everything can be celebrated with the same enthusiasm, however. While Diaz and Dominique Fishback (as brainy museum artifact researcher Elena Wallace) provide sustainable enough performances as Transformer allies, their characters feel like cogs in a machine. Diaz and Davidson share humorous lines of bromanship as the new Charlie and Bumblebee duo, but the Transformers are more entertaining alone than with their fleshy tour guides. Noah’s connection to his sickly brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) gives Diaz more to chew on as a sibling who fights to show his lil’ bro how to conquer adversity, but that’s shelved for a bit once the landscape changes from New York City to Peru. Should Diaz and Fishback return for a sequel to Rise of the Beasts, I hope their characters feel less typical as Transformers tagalongs.
The Transformers Movies in (Chronological) Order
As for the animation required to bring planet-devourers and Autobot saviors to life, it’s mainly exhilarating outside of interactions where Transformers and human actors engage with one another physically. Maybe that’s Optimus Prime picking Noah up like a nervous hamster or a bodysuit scene where Transformers technology covers an actor aside from his still-visible face. There’s an inorganic Cyborg in Justice League or Robocop remake vibe to it that looks somewhat unfortunate. Luckily, these are minor interruptions in the action, which sees fiery explosions backdrop laser blaster shootouts and limb-severing Transformer swordplay.