A Review by Victor DeBonis
“Rise of the Beasts” is a decent action-fantasy movie for family audiences, providing likable characters and some thoroughly satisfying and well-filmed action.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was going to see this movie because I’m not going to mince words: I can’t stand Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films. A couple of action scenes are okay, and Mark Wahlberg plays an action hero that is far more fun to watch. Yet, I find the humor, writing, and characters (especially Sam Witwicky and his parents) to be incredibly obnoxious. Also, most of the action scenes are hard to enjoy, due to the muddled filming of them. Michael Bay can be a skilled filmmaker (Check out his work with music videos as well as “The Rock” “Pain and Gain” and last year’s awesome “Ambulance” if you haven’t already). Yet, similar to Zack Snyder and the DCEU, it was simply a matter of hiring a talented artist with the wrong material.
Setting this aside, I can’t say that I am a huge fan for the “Transformers” franchise, in general, although I do enjoy the animated film from 1986, and I highly enjoy the “Bumblebee” spinoff from 2018. The idea of robots fighting each other when done well is fun, but, in my younger years, I found myself admiring superhero figures as toys more often than the Transformers as toys. Part of that may come from the personality and storylines surrounding Batman and such as well as the fact that I never did love cars as other boys around my age did. The idea of these vehicles changing into giant robots was fun, but there wasn’t enough of a story in my young eyes to keep me invested for too long with them.
One element about “Rise of the Beasts” that gave me hope was Steven Caple Jr, who directed the awesome “Creed II.” Once more, Caple Jr delivers with good pacing and a sturdy knowledge of balancing heavy action with legitimately entertaining humor. Anthony Ramos plays the human hero of the movie, and I admire how different he feels not just from the heroes of the Bay films but for action films as a whole. Most of the time, he doesn’t shout to make his voice heard, and the compassion and vulnerability that he carries are shown through his eyes. Whenever he talks to someone about a serious matter, he speaks with real conviction. Yet, Ramos’ character is also written with competence and given a fair amount to establish himself as a hero trying to overcome some relatable trials before and after he meets the giant robots.
The movie is very wise at establishing the familial connections and dilemmas that reveal the heart of Ramos’ character and helping the audience to recognize why it should care about him. It’d be a stretch to call this movie deep, but it can be viewed as a film about the importance of family, in general, whether it’s the bond between Ramos and his brother and mother or the gang of Transformers trying to look after each other and sacrifice themselves to protect one of theirs or others that they love as a whole. Dominique Fishback works well as the artifact researcher who assists Ramos and the robots on their quest and voices great intelligence and humility.
One of the downsides to the film, however, is that, while Ramos and Fishback’s chemistry is okay and the two do have a few nice moments to sit down and talk, the connection between them isn’t established as strongly as it could be because there aren’t too many scenes with them conversing, which is a bit of a missed opportunity. Also, for a movie that gains much of its heart from the connection between Ramos and his brother (acted well, too, with a similarly quiet voice that speaks with firmness and humorously reacts to scenarios with comedic surprise without coming across as overly cocky), it’s somewhat strange that the younger brother doesn’t join the former on his quest across the globe. From a narrative standpoint, it makes some sense given how the younger brother is very ill, but, when the film centers on a conversation with them both talking about the power from being “together” it does provide a mixed message when the two are forced to physically be apart. There are also a few dramatic parts in the story that are meant to be a little saddening. However, while they thankfully don’t fall into the trap of “Shazam 2” via being resolved in a tonally absurd way that destroys any seriousness that was involved in the initial tragedy, they also are resolved a little quicker than expected.
The 90’s environment, while briefly shown, works effectively and gives a new background, which can feel fun to observe and walk through. Plus, the soundtrack of rap from this era is great, too. I’m very picky when it comes to rap, but I am a sucker for good 90’s rap, and I found myself bobbing my head with joy to the slick rhythm of some of the tracks from this movie. Wu-Tang Clan, LL Cool J, and (a personal favorite of mine) A Tribe Called Quest were some of the musical artists that provided a solid energy in this film.
As far as humor goes, there are some jokes that miss, but, overall, I found myself chuckling and grinning a ton with the others. Part of the appeal is that this movie knows how to pace its comedy and not linger over and over with a character doing something dumb. Here, the laughter comes from the delivery of humans’ vocal responses to what’s going on and what some of the Transformers say as well. Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime causes laughter with a couple of responses to scenarios around him, and, for such a legendary character with a booming, awesome voice, this was a nice surprise. There are even a couple of times in which a few jokes are aimed a little at the previous movies, and I was delightfully surprised that this movie could poke a little fun at its property at the same time.
Pete Davidson voices Mirage, the main robot that Ramos interacts with, and, when I first heard his voice, I was a little hesitant. He has done some funny bits here and there (His “Short A** Movie” sketch, which can be found on YouTube, is great, and, given what I do, I find it so achingly accurate, too), but I also never found him to be the comedy blockbuster star that mostly filled me with laughs in the way that, say, Eddie Murphy’s work in the 80’s and Jim Carrey from the 90’s resonated with me. Also, I heavily detest Davidson’s movie “The King of Staten Island” but I digress.
Here, though, Davidson works like a charm. Not only does he have a number of humorous responses in his interactions with Ramos and the rest of the robots, but the writing is knowledgeable regarding when to dial back his cocky demeanor and present him as someone who is invested in his Transformers family and looking after his human buddy. Davidson said in interviews that his character, vocally, was a bit of a mix of Jim Carrey’s “Mask” and Bugs Bunny, and, given how big of a fan I am of both as characters (I watched “The Mask” an unbelievable amount of times from the video store when I was younger), maybe, that admittedly helps a bit for me as well. His character is undeniably cartoonish in his reactions and one-liners, but it also helps that he also comes across as a delightfully dumb yet likable “older brother” robot trying to protect Davidson in a similar way to how Optimus Prime is looking after his family of robots. Again, it plays to this movie’s idea about family.
All of the other voices are cast well for their Transformers counterparts, too. Cullen is amazing as expected as the powerful and commanding presence of Prime, but Ron Perlman is a blast as this booming and vicious gorilla, and the always awesome Michelle Yeoh is great to listen to as this wise falcon. On top of that, Caple Jr sets up some fun action scenes, guiding the camera to swoop and gently glide around as cars zoom through the streets or Transformers deliver punches or swing each other around. Every fighting moment stays in focus with its character and allows the audience to visually recognize who is fighting who.
Overall, “Rise of the Beasts” doesn’t reinvent the wheel for “Transformers” movies, and its story and humor often leads to where one knows that it will and doesn’t always click as a whole. Yet, its heart is very evident in its connections between its likable characters and their dilemmas. The humor mostly succeeds, and the action is entertaining and fairly easy to follow. The soundtrack has some good jams to it, and I love how media, in general, is starting to represent the best that the 90’s era had to offer.
This may be close to “BumbleBee” as my second live-action “Transformers” movie that I enjoy, overall, mainly because I felt that the story from the former allowed me to admire Hailee Steinfeld’s bond and what her character went through a bit more. With that said, the bond between Mirage and Ramos might be on the same level but with a bit more enjoyable humor.
Overall, this is a solid, fun time for family audiences involving both adults and kids.