It will come as little surprise that Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is not exactly a good movie. It is, after all, a movie about a talking robot ape voiced by Ron Perlman, as well as some other talking robot animals plus some talking robot vehicles, all of whom join together to fight a planet-eating robot celestial entity called Unicron, which blah blah evil big etc. In a long-lost era, an animated Unicron was voiced by Orson Welles.
It is also, I should remind you, titled Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. No one is expecting Citizen Kane—or even, for that matter, Citizen Kane 2: Rise of the Daily Beast.
But it is much better than a movie with its title and premise and franchise-lateness should be. This is the seventh live-action Transformers film since 2007, and somehow, the filmmakers seem to be trying. Sure, Beasts is cheesy and obvious and formulaic and more than a little cartoony. But it's also refreshingly earnest and heartfelt. From time to time, it even verges on clever. And while it's completely ridiculous, it never quite lets its ridiculousness get in the way.
The Transformers movies have been occupying multiplex for the better part of two decades now. The first five were directed by Michael Bay, who imbued the franchise with an ever-increasing sense of mayhem. There! Were! Always! So! Many! Things! Happening! It was not always clear, precisely, what those things were, but robots and John Turturro and Stanley Tucci were all involved somehow.
The series arguably reached its apotheosis in the prologue to Bay's final installment, 2017's The Last Knight. Although the previous films had been set in the present day, and the film's ostensible star was Mark Wahlberg, playing a father and inventor named Cade Yeager, the movie begins in ancient Europe. In the opening sequence, Stanley Tucci, playing a drunken Merlin—yes, of King Arthur and the Roundtable—rides a horse up to a cave and despondently argues a three-headed robot dragon from its depths. In a normal movie, this sort of scene might raise some questions. Why, you might ask, is Tucci, who previously played a scheming present-day robotics executive in 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction, now playing Merlin? Are the robots that are also cars…also dragons? Is it plausible that someone would be named Cade Yeager?
Under Bay, the point of the franchise was not to answer these questions. It was to defeat them through sheer force of cinematic nonsense.
Rise of the Beasts, I am sorry to report, does not deliver Stanley Tucci inexplicably playing a drunken, robot-dragon-arguing Merlin.
But it does give us Noah Diaz, former soldier struggling to balance his family commitments with a job, and Elena Wallace, an artifacts expert who identifies the movie's MacGuffin—something called the Transwarp Key—as well as a lunchbox full of talking, shooting, joking, menacing, heroic, villainous robot aliens with group names like Terrorcons (the bad guys, you probably guessed) and Maximals (a new group of animal-based, good-guy robo-aliens).
There's a fun soundtrack full of 90s hip-hop standards, since the movie nominally takes place in 1994, which mostly just means there are no smartphones. If nothing else, Beasts features the best use of a Wu-Tang Clan song I've ever encountered in a Transformers movie.
And there's a plot, I suppose, involving the Transwarp Key and saving the planet and stopping Unicron and shooting a lot of stuff with robot arm guns. But the story's particulars are mostly incidental to the robots, the gags, and the action. Did I mention the giant robots?
You don't expect originality from a film like Beasts, so it's to its credit that it borrows liberally from better movies: In Diaz's character, the movie gives viewers the flavor of Into the Spider-Verse's heartfelt kid-from-New York shtick; in some of the car-based action sequences, there are nods to the better bits from the Fast and the Furious franchise; in the movie's finale, there are copious nods to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. I'm not saying the new Transformers movie is Spider-Verse crossed with Fast and the Furious and Return of the King—but I'm not not saying that either.
What Rise of the Beasts does better than Bay's films is tell a mostly coherent story with clearly defined motivations and distinct characters. That this is a surprise and a compliment no doubt says something about the franchise, and perhaps the general state of the summer blockbuster. It's no Orson Welles as a planet-chomping space-god-bot. But it mostly delivers on the promise of a Transformers movie, and that's not nothing.