" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Surprise! This long-running series has finally transformed back into an entertaining spectacle that keeps Michael Bay’s questionable sensibilities at bay.

They Live!

Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback
Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback

Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise Rise of the Beasts is as good as it is. This installment — 16 years after Michael Bay first united Shia LaBeouf and Optimus Prime in cosmic warfare — was directed by Steven Caple Jr. He’s not a household name — yet. But in 2018 he followed-up Ryan Coogler’s Creed with a superior sequel that packed a (surprising) punch. Caple is a more-than-capable director worth watching.

The Transformers series started with big ambitions built around LaBeouf, Megan Fox and their star-crossed (and short-lived) romance. Fox left; Rosie Huntington-Whiteley stepped in. All of that gave way to Mark Wahlberg leading the devolution of the series down to the unwatchable Transformers: The Last Knight. That was quickly followed in 2018 by a Bumblebee spin-off — set in 1987 — with Hailee Steinfeld, but that one didn’t pick up much momentum.

Here, Caple breaks the series back down into the fundamental elements that make this material work.

The time is 1994, following the flight of Bumblebee and keeping on track with the intent to establish a prequel series rather than pretend none of what transpired with LaBeouf and Wahlberg ever happened. The place is New York City, with the Twin Towers still standing strong near Battery Park. The music comes from Wu Tang Clan and De La Soul. (There’s also a nicely placed joke about Wahlberg making the transition from the Funky Bunch to acting.) The tech stack includes the monochromatic GameBoy.

Setting the movie in the 1990s also sets the movie up for a rebirth of relatively old-school filmmaking. Screenwriters Joby Harold (a seasoned veteran with the Obi-Wan Kenobi Disney+ series among his many credits) and the BMF tag team of Darnell Metayer and Josh Peters take time setting the stage and — more importantly — investing in the lead characters. More about them in a bit.

Along with that stage-setting, there’s a character-based setup that ends with a crowd-pleasing payoff and a zinger of a twist. A little bit about that later, too.

Parallel Stories

As the lead characters grow into their own, the 1990s fade into the background. It takes some time to warm up to these characters, but that’s also part of what makes Rise of the Beasts work. That time is needed to build some goodwill and give them some depth and relatability. It’s an investment that pays off.

This is about Noah Diaz (the multi-talented Anthony Ramos from Broadway and In the Heights), an army veteran with a strong sense of family duty. He’s looking after his younger brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez, also in In the Heights), who is struggling to find life-saving medical care.

There’s also Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback, Judas and the Black Messiah). She’s an underappreciated anthropologist at Ellis Island’s new museum. You know the drill. Great ideas stolen by upper management; top-flight talent relegated to menial tasks.

As fate and irony would have it, the liberation of both these characters begins on Ellis Island, when Unicrom brings his planet-devouring ambitions to Earth and their paths cross amid a scene of destruction while Unicrom’s minions duke it out with Autobots and Maximals. Those Maximals — a spin on natural beasts and technology — make their live-action debut here, having first appeared in the 1990s animated series Beast Wars: Transformers. At this point, everybody knows Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen); now, meet his Maximal counterpart, Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman), a giant gorilla with fur covering most of his heavy metal.

From there, the story expands into a solid adventure involving a treasure hunt to find the Transwarp key, the only hope to lock out Unicrom’s portal from annihilating Earth. Much as the action shifted to Egypt in Dark of the Moon, Rise of the Beasts moves to Peru, where a pretty cool, long-standing bond between the Autobots and Peruvians is revealed. That angle could’ve been taken further, but it’s still a decent attempt to ground the Transformers mythology with some human connectivity. And, of course, every back story has a back story, so that’s certainly a storyline worth digging into on a deeper level at some point down the road.

Space-Time Portals

Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)
Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)

Overall, Rise of the Beasts is surprisingly smart and operates with a refreshingly healthy sense of humor that — aside from one funny but unnecessary joke — steers away from the crass, abrasive humor that was a hallmark of the Bay-directed Transformers collection.

As for the likable leads — Ramos and Fishback — in Rise of the Beasts, there’s a pleasant growth factor, leaving them in a better place at the end than where they started.

Without saying too much, it’s fair to say Noah was criticized in the opening scenes as not being focused, not knowing how to be a team player. He’s effectively ghosted at a job interview because his potential employer heard about some of Noah’s inconsistent patterns of behavior, paying no heed to those issues being taken out of context.

For Elena, it’s about finding the professional respect she deserves.

That’s all good. But there’s still more. The conclusion throws in that previously mentioned “zinger” of a twist. It’s cool. Really cool. And it’s a great setup to a whole new series that — while still under the production auspices of Bay — will hopefully lead to some old-school (circa the 1990s) summer popcorn movie extravaganzas yet to come.