Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is fuel for fans with a new flavour (and a funny Pete Davidson)

The era of Michael Bay Transformers is over and it's a much-needed change, says CBC's Eli Glasner as director Steven Caple Jr. presents a new epic with a flavour all his own.

Director of Creed II puts the long-suffering franchise back on the right track

Rise of the Beasts returns Transformers to their cartoon roots

4 months ago
Duration 7:53
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts leaves the excesses of the Michael Bay era behind in favour of nostalgia for characters familiar to audiences of its '80s and '90s TV incarnations.

Exploding onto screens in 2007, director Michael Bay brought the Transformers toy line to life with a mixture of mayhem and amusement.

The best of the Bay films were screwball comedies seasoned with slapstick and fireballs, glimpsed through a firewall of misogyny and military propaganda. As Mark Wahlberg replaced Shia LaBeouf, the films slipped into greater and greater levels of incoherence.

It was as if Bay declared war on his audience, each action sequence louder and dumber, a cinematic slurry of chaos and flame.

Following 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight, Hasbro and Paramount tried something different. Set in the late '80s, Bumblebee was basically the answer to "What if E.T. was a giant yellow robot?"

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, there was a surprising sweetness to the story that reconnected the franchise to its long-lost power source: nostalgia.

A robot gorrila, van and motorbike look off to the distance
Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Wheeljack and Arcee are just some of the new characters who appear in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. (Paramount Pictures, Hasbro)

Bringing the Transformers back to their roots

There is an entire universe of Transformers fans, collectors and conventions powered by affection for the original cartoon series and the characters they inspired. Like a fidget toy for grown ups, there's something satisfying about these miniature miracles of plastic engineering. You bend an arm, open a flap. Flip a leg into place. With a satisfying click, it all slips into place. 

robot gestures
Pete Davidson's personality adds some much-needed levity to Mirage, an Autobot with the ability to project holograms and change his shape. (Paramount Pictures, Hasbro)

While the robots of Bay movies evolved into shiny metal monsters with alien faces, Bumblebee brought back the simpler designs that inspired so many collectors, like myself.

Building on the success of Bumblebee, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts picks up where the story left off with a new director at the helm, Steven Caple Jr.  A Transformers fan raised on the movies and cartoons, the director of Creed II injected his own flavour into the franchise while returning beloved characters to their roots. 

Pete Davidson's best work yet

The year is 1994 and the place is Brooklyn as we find Anthony Ramos as Noah, a former soldier trying to pay his sick little brother's bills. Out of options, Noah is desperately trying to hotwire a Porsche when he inadvertently discovers Mirage and the rest of the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime. 

Turns out voicing Mirage the fast-talking Porsche is the perfect vehicle for Pete Davidson's particular set of skills. While the former Saturday Night Live comedian is best enjoyed in short bursts, as the voice of the robot his improvised quips about Autobot bros add a much-needed spark. 

two humans run
Another Earth-shattering crisis approaches? Quick, send the humans. (Jonathan Wenk)

Meanwhile, Elana, an underappreciated anthropologist played by Dominique Fishback, discovers an artifact that puts her at the centre of a galactic struggle. The museum assistant unwittingly uncovers part of the transwarp key, which could bring the planet-munching entity called Unicron to Earth.

It could also give the long-suffering Autobots a way off the planet.

From Creed to Cybertron

Soon the Autobots and their human friends are stomping around Peru, in the process uncovering another group of metallic aliens known as the Maximals. The mechanic menagerie includes Ron Perlman as the roaring robo-gorilla Optimus Primal. Straight off her Oscar win, Michelle Yeoh is the high-flying Airazor. There's also a robotic cheetah and my personal favourite, Rhinox, a robotic rhinoceros. 

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6 years ago
Duration 6:54
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While any reasonable person might wonder why aliens who hid on Earth for centuries would take the shape of metallic animals, the only real answer is once again, nostalgia. Like millions of Transformers fans, Caple Jr. grew up watching the Beast Wars cartoon. Now he has a chance to bring in more much-loved characters while the Autobots join the Maximals in battle against the Terrorcons, the dastardly robots who serve Unicron. 

Optimus upgraded 

The result is something new for Transformers fans: coherent action sequences. Autobots trade blows with Battletrap, a tow truck with a mean metal chain, as they careen across a thin road carved into the Andes. A student of franchise lore, Caple Jr. even gives Optimus Prime an upgrade. While Bay's Prime seemed little more than a stoic soldier in another eye-shattering action sequence, with Rise of the Beasts we get a weary warrior torn between protecting humans and getting home. 

robot rhino
Rhinox, a member of the Maximals, arrives to investigate when the Autobots travel to the jungles of Peru. (Paramount Pictures, Hasbro)

While the escalating action will have fans munching popcorn by the handful, the film does continue the tradition of illogical plans that strangely depend on putting humans in peril.

Someone must activate the critical transwarp portal gizmo. Sure we have flying falcons and sleek motorcycles, but let's send the fragile anthropologist while massive machines shake the Earth. 

director poses in truck
Director Steven Caple Jr. replaces Michael Bay as the newest Transformers director. He is seen here posing in the Freightliner semi-tractor form of Optimus Prime. (Jonathan Wenk)

But the moment you start questioning the logic, Transformers falls to pieces.  At its best, it's a vibe. Caple Jr. serves up his share of big-screen spectacles, accented by needle-drop music choices that will leave heads bopping. Transformers and Wu-Tang Clan? It's about time.

Subtle it ain't, but Rise of the Beasts is guaranteed to leave fans giddy (especially after a certain end credits reveal). If you don't know your Megatron from your Motomaster, best to steer clear. Otherwise, roll out and enjoy.


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.