“Transformers: Rise of the Beast” finds genuine laughs and human drama

Taking a live-action “Transformers” movie seriously feels absurd. And yet, that’s what director Michael Bay did with his abysmal reboots of the toy brand starting in 2007, leaving an entire generation of would-be fans with the sense that these shapeshifting robots are as flat, joyless and violent as Superman and Batman are in the hands of director Zack Snyder.

That’s worth remembering while watching the relatively fleet, airy “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which releases June 9. The movie succeeds where most “Transformers” titles fail by focusing on laughs and heart amid the thudding setpieces. And even those are better than the Bay-directed movies. Incredibly, the fact that Michelle Yeoh, Ron Perlman and Peter Dinklage voice some of the robots has nothing to do with it.

The latest in a decades-long string of ads for parent company Hasbro, “Rise of the Beasts” expands the Transformers world to the time-traveling Maximals, or robots who look like cheetahs, gorillas, birds and rhinos. They share the Autobots’ mission to save the world from the nebulously evil Unicron, whose minions search for a key hidden on Earth to bring Unicron here to devour us. Heroes such as Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee (who talks using snippets of songs and movies) actually look like the 1980s and ’90s toys, not the over-designed Michael Bay monstrosities.

The movie’s big baddie is a twinkling yellow light with zero motivations — a carboard Sauron. Not like it matters. “Rise of the Beasts” is unbothered with justifying or explaining its plot, which is refreshing next to so many flimsy sci-fi concepts that are teased out with grave, dour world-building. There’s just enough of it to remind us why we’re here.

Despite a fan-service opening that posits the Maximals as a tragic race, the movie switches gears to become a hip hop-driven portrait of mid-1990s Brooklyn, with sharp editing and excellent use of period-appropriate hits. There’s a functional engine under this hood as the script, direction (by Steve Caple Jr.), cinematography (Enrique Chediak) and acting coalesce into what, for a “Transformers” movie, is a shockingly solid dramedy.

Anthony Ramos carries the movie with a mixture of innocent determination, amazement and self-doubt as reluctant hero Noah Diaz. The Brooklyn native and ex-soldier is looking to raise money for his sick little brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), who’s battling a chronic illness. Diaz grates against the establishment and gravitates toward crime to pay the bills, but ends up stealing a car that turns out to be the Autobot Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson, in his most appealing role).

Conversely, researcher Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) is a quiet yet deeply curious museum researcher on Ellis Island whose boss steals the credit for her work. She has stumbled upon a mystery that will take her far from her hometown of Brooklyn, and her “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style discoveries drive the entire movie forward.

It’s no accident that these characters are people of color; “Rise of the Beasts” takes place not in a beer ad but urban streets and industrial backdrops (most of it, anyway). The leads must find a way to work together in mechanized system that exploits and denigrates their work. A constellation of credited screenwriters threads that idea through the first two acts until the movie finally becomes a well-paced but familiar series of explosions and metallic crunch.

The overall earned-fun feels rare compared to the first five “Transformers” live-action movies. Bay’s sensibilities in those resulted in a carousel of male-gaze festishization and overly complicated visual garbage that disappointed longtime fans just as “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” did in 1999. Because they made a lot of money there was no reason to change the formula.

But the source material for this toy brand — which appropriated existing Japanese toys of the late 1970s and early ’80s — has its own high points, from thoughtful and inventive comics to good-faith TV series aimed at different age groups. Despite the Bay-bloat, 2018’s “Bumblebee” found the right balance of whimsy and grounding while soft-peddling the mindless lore. Human potatoes Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg, who made the first five movies feel extra lowbrow, were nowhere to be seen.

Toning down CGI excess and upping the nostalgia removes the self-seriousness, but the “Beast” world at first feels underpopulated compared to, say, a Marvel tableau and especially the first few minutes of “Bumblebee,” which took place on Cybertron. This turns out to be a good thing. Instead of epic, “Endgame”-style battle scenes, these are coherent fights between characters you can follow.

Movie audiences have never been monochromatic but are often to be treated that way. This “Transformers” presents working-class and multiracial narratives that are uncommon outside of Oscar-bait dramas. It’s not a revolution, and it’s not trying to be. But it is proof that even the most one-dimensional concepts can connect on a deeper level if treated with care.

“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”

Rated: PG-13
Run time: 127 minutes
Where: in theaters
Score: 2.5 stars (out of 4)

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