“TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS”
Starring Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Pete Davidson, Liza Koshy, Michelle Yeoh, John DiMaggio, David Sobolov, Anthony Ramos, Dean Scott Vasquez, Luna Lauren Valdez, Dominique Fishback, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, Colman Domingo, Cristo Fernandez, Tongayi Chirisa
Written by Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber
Story by Joby Harold
Based on the Transformers toys by Hasbro
Directed by Steven Caple, Jr.
Produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian and Duncan Henderson
Cinematography by Enrique Chediak
Edited by Joel Negron and William Goldenberg
Music by Jongnic Bontemps

By Matt Neufeld
June 8, 2023

The summer of 2023 is quite interestingly already shaping up to be, even by early- and mid-June, an exceptional movie season, bolstered by a welcome return to form for the Disney/Marvel comic book superhero franchise with the above-average “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3;” the welcome return to form for the Warner Bros./DC Comics comic book superhero franchise with the above-average “The Flash” (which opens nationwide on June 16, 2023, but which has been seen by this reviewer); and now, a welcome return to form for the Paramount/Hasbro Transformers toy-based franchise with the enjoyable, entertaining and, yes, even heartfelt “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which roars into theaters nationwide on Friday, June 9, 2023, as a rollicking, recommended solid summer science fiction movie blockbuster entertainment.

This is all excellent, welcoming news for all three of these franchises and for the beleaguered movie industry in general, all of which have been mercilessly battered and shattered into the ground in recent years by a near-apocalyptic barrage of concurrent intertwined factors that have included: changes in general moviegoing habits; increased competition from hordes of new, but generally terrible, streaming options; a virus pandemic that literally shut down movie houses worldwide; internal troubles throughout the movie industry in numerous areas; horrendous internal troubles within several movie theater chains, including the bankruptcy of the owner of the Regal Cinemas chain; a general, overall decline in movie quality; a smothering over-abundance and over-reliance on sequels, prequels, reboots, reimaginings and franchises, with most of these movies just ending up as awful duds, flops and bombs; inflation; supply chain problems; labor shortages; various strikes in several filmmaking business areas; stupidly increasing production, advertising and marketing costs; and scarily decreasing profit and revenue margins.

Thus, it’s nice, very nice, to see “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” succeed–and succeed so enjoyably on so many filmic levels. It’s also nice to recommend this film for everyone–not just Transformers die-hards and not just sci-fi diehards–but for everyone. And it’s nice to recommend that parents go on and take the younger kids on out to the theaters–this movie needs to be seen up on the big screen–and enjoy not only the still-lovable, inventive and relatable main Transformers heroes, but also the attendant spectacle of breathtaking, dazzling special effects; the positive messages about the importance of family and hard work, and good winning out over evil, and teamwork and being part of a team to make things better; the lovable new robot-animal characters who absolutely everyone will love; exciting, well-staged, well-defined and well-choreographed action sequences; and overall, sharp, tight and brisk direction, editing, timing and pacing that keeps the story, story development, characters, character development and the overall momentum constantly moving forward.

Not bad, not bad at all, considering that “Beasts” is–are you ready?–the seventh–that’s seventh–“Transformers” movie released since 2007 and that five of these movies were directed by–are you ready?–Michael Bay. Yes, that Michael Bay.

So there’s quite a lot to celebrate with the rousing success of “Beasts.”

One basic aspect of this entire Transformers franchise–which includes not just the original toys and seven movies, but comic books, books, video games and an animated television series–that still remains as basically captivating and fascinating as it has since the very beginning is that very core, foundational essence of what makes the Transformers different and uniquely original: The Transformers are alien robotic creatures with human feelings and emotions who can transform themselves into various cars, trucks and planes, among other mechanical and electric things, in an instant, rendering themselves hidden to others, disguised in the forms of the mechanical objects that they quickly, effortlessly turn into. Let’s face it–not only is that just endlessly cool, its also pop-culturally brilliant.

So to be able to sit back in a darkened movie theater and watch, still wide-eyed, in 2023, as these truly feeling, truly caring humongous robotic aliens turn into and out of various cars, trucks, vans, planes and even weapons, operating like some type of fever dream combination of the Terminator, Predator, Robocop, the Borg, Data, HAL, a puzzle box and a Swiss Army Knife, in a fun, entertaining movie—even after we’ve all seen these transformations a zillion times now–is yet another cause for celebration, and a testament to the filmmaker’s talents, for “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.”

The story, from an ensemble of five writers, with the story credit to Joby Harold, and of course still generally based on the Transformers toy line created by the Hasbro toy company and actually acting as a prequel to the first movie in the series, 2007’s “Transformers,” involves two people living in Brooklyn in 1994, a museum academic researcher and an ex-Army, out-of-work electrician, whose lives concurrently intersect with the Transformers–and the Transformers’ ongoing intergalactic wars. The museum worker, suitably underplayed as an Everywoman by Dominique Fishback, and the electrician, also suitably underplayed as an Everyman by Anthony Ramos, find themselves literally in the middle of a world-spanning, universe-spanning battle between the good Transformers, known as Autobots and led by the always-charismatic, powerfully-spoken, deeply-caring and respected leader Optimus Prime, and the bad Transformers, led by the perfectly-named Scourge, who leads the greatly-named Terrorcons, who work for the Sauron-like evil dark lord bad guy villain Unicron. (Sauron is the main villain in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” universe.) Unicron, also, like Sauron, wants to get his hands on a device that will allow him and his henchmen to rule the universe and bring everything under his dark, destructive power. As it turns out, the museum researcher, Elena Wallace, possesses half of that device, which is known as the Transwarp Key, and she knows where the other half is hidden.

The Autobots need to find that other half, and they need to protect the half that they already have, before nasty old Unicron and his army of truly scary Terrorcons and Predacon drones get their oily robot claws on both of them and start their path of total annihilation–of Earth and other planets.

The action moves to Peru, which allows for some breathtaking scenery, sets, shots, locales and action sequences set amid truly beautiful, distinctive and exotic lands. Sure, much of it is CGIed, but it’s still beautiful to behold.

Ramos and Fishback are basically the only two main, consistently prominent live-action and human characters, and they, as noted, appropriately play their roles in a constant state of complete, understated, down-to-earth befuddlement and bewilderment. Which is entirely appropriate. If you were just going about your average, ordinary, 1994 Brooklyn life–which for most of us means just trying to stay employed and pay the bills on time–and then, quite suddenly, you found yourself surrounded by otherworldly alien robots who talk and have emotions and who are fighting a war to save Earth, the universe and everything everywhere, well you’d be befuddled and bewildered, too.

This very ordinary, fish-out-of-water presence of Elena and Ramos’ Noah Diaz helps ground “Beasts” in a bit of heartfelt, caring humanity. And the concurrent, very real kind, caring, introspective, emotion-filled personalities of the Autobots, who work together as not just a team but as a family (much like “Guardian’s” crew/team/family), also grounds “Beasts” in more heartfelt, caring humanity. Thus, amid all of the action and spectacle, viewers will like, relate to, and care about these good-at heart people and good-at-heart alien transformative robots.

Peter Cullen returns, again, in excellent form as Optimus Prime. His voicing of Prime still holds up, and is still captivating. When Optimus Prime speaks–you listen, and you know that you better listen. Cullen’s voicing of Prime in the Transformers movies is a master class in voice acting and acting in general. Cullen is, as he’s always been, the best actor in the movie.

But Cullen is helped by a stellar cast of actors, all of whom shine in “Beasts.” Pete Davidson, who seems to be in everything everywhere all at once these days, voices the Autobot Mirage; Liza Koshy is the Autobot Arcee; and Peter Dinklage is the Terrorcon Scourge. Back on the human side, young Dean Scott Vasquez is great as Noah’s younger, preteen brother, Kris Diaz, and Luna Lauren Valez is sympathetic as Noah’s and Kris’ hard-working mom.

But the new, standout, truly inventive and breathtaking addition in “Beasts” are the beasts of the title themselves–a group of smart, savvy Transformers who transform themselves into, well, fantastic beasts. They are called Maximals, and, much like the creatures in James Cameron’s instant classic “Avatar: The Way of Water,” they are wondrous, beautiful, and, even if they resemble familiar animals, they remain appropriately otherworldly. The Maximals are led by Optimus Primal, who is superbly voiced by Ron Perlman, who promptly adds yet another stellar sci-fi and fantasy role to his entertainment resume. Primal is a western lowland gorilla robot, and of course he resembles King Kong. But Primal is never a rip-off of Kong–director Steven Caple, Jr., and his writers are too smart for rip-offs. Like how Unicron comes through as an homage to Sauron and Tolkien, Primal comes through as an homage to everything Kong.

Joining Perlman as Primal is, speaking of everything everywhere all at once, Michelle Yeoh as the peregrine falcon bot Airazor. The artistic renderings of Primal and Airazor are beautiful, and the voicings of the characters by vets Perlman and Yeoh only add to the creatures’ beauty. Viewers will fall in love with these new characters–and so will the marketing and memorabilia executives at Hasbro.

Tremendous kudos need to go out to the literal hundreds and hundreds of special effects and animation artists who worked on the effects for “Beasts.” Here, the effects, the action, the fights and all of the otherworldly characters and creatures come together in a manner that is never over-done, clunky or gratuitous like too many action and fight sequences are in too many movies from the last twenty-five years.

It’s June, and summer has arrived, thank goodness. We all need summer, and warmth, and good summery, warm-hearted summer movies. So, please, turn off your computers, laptops, cell phones, gizmos and gadgets, get in the car, head on over to your local movie theater, and enjoy this entertaining movie rebirth, with “Guardians,” “Flash,” and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” Summer’s here, and the time is right for dancing in the movie theaters.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.