Transformers: Rise of the Beasts – 2 stars out of 4

Thanks to 2018’s “Bumblebee,” the bar for “Transformers” movies was raised after a decade of overstuffed schlock. Unfortunately, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” takes the franchise back toward Bayhem.

I went into “Rise of the Beasts” with mixed expectations. “Bumblebee” was so good—really, the “Transformers” movie I think fans of the original toys and TV cartoon always wanted—that there was a feeling a course correction had taken place for the Robots in Disguise. At the same time, noting that the new 1990’s-set movie would incorporate the Maximals—a second-generation “Transformers” line introduced long after I swapped my toys for pickup basketball games—suggested “Rise of the Beasts” wasn’t meant for me personally.

The film opens with promise, introducing the planet-munching super-robot Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo) as he’s about to go to town on a distant planet. Longtime fans will remember Unicron from the infamous 1986 animated Transformers movie, which Hasbro effectively used to wipe out an entire line of toys and replace them with new product.

Before Unicron eats the planet, a handful of Maximals—led by a gorilla-robot named Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman)—use something called a Transwarp Key to travel galaxies away to Earth. The hope is that without the Key, Unicron will be stuck in his own galaxy, and forced to survive on local planets (nuts to them, I guess). But of course that hope is dashed when Unicron sends his minions the Terrorcons to Earth in search of the Key so they can open the door to Armageddon. Munchageddon? Whatever.

The only thing standing in the way of Unicron and co. are the Maximals, two unnaturally talented 20-something humans (because these kinds of movies demand unnaturally talented 20-something humans), and a small group of good-guy Transformers led by franchise icon Optimus Prime (voiced as always by Peter Cullen). If that sounds like a pretty small resistance for a potential planet-wide annihilation, you aren’t alone.

One of the things that made “Bumblebee” work was its small scale, which had fun with the Transformers concept while holding back on the roiling chaos that all the Michael Bay movies eventually devolved to. But “Rise of the Beasts” jumps head first into sky beams and inter-planetary destruction while staging its own “Avengers: Endgame” with about a tenth of the cast. At least the Macchu Picchu backdrop looks cool.

“Rise of the Beasts” also falls into the visual trap of similar films. While some of the Transformers—like Prime and newcomer Arcee (Liza Koshy)—look unique, familiar, and well-designed, others, like hologram-trickster Mirage (Pete Davidson) start to look generic and too messy to keep track of next to his counterparts.

The human leads are also a crutch, asked to perform superhuman tasks against impossible odds in a situation where no one would logically put the fate of the planet in the hands of tiny, vulnerable humans that could be stomped at any second by accident. Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback do a solid job as a struggling Iraq War Vet and an aspiring archeologist, respectively. But it doesn’t help that their mutual obsession with being from Brooklyn offers a constant reminder that Hollywood thinks 99% of the US population either lives in New York City or Los Angeles.

Altogether, “Rise of the Beasts” remains a clear step up from the worst of the Michael Bay-directed slogs, if only because it clocks in around two hours runtime instead of three. But it’s also a clear step down from “Bumblebee,” and that makes “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” a disappointment.

“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and general mayhem.

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