Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Dom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian and Duncan Henderson   Director: Steven Caple Jr.   Screenplay: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber   Cast: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Vélez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Tobe Nwigwe, Sarah Stiles, Michael Kelly, and the voices of Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Liza Koshy, John DiMaggio, David Sobolov, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Pete Davidson, Colman Domingo, Cristo Fernandez and Tongayi Chirisa    Distributor: Paramount

Grade: C-

For better or worse, “Rise of the Beasts” is a “Transformers” movie for “Transformers” fans, one that makes little effort to appeal in the slightest to anyone else, as “Bumblebee,” the initial installment in this prequel phase of the franchise, did to its credit.  “Beasts,” a period piece like its predecessor (it’s set in 1994, seven years after “Bumblebee”), does try to emulate that superior entry by giving its human characters some depth, but unlike the youngsters played by Hailee Steinfeld and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in the previous picture, the terrestrials this time around are a pretty pallid pair.

They’re Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback). He’s an ex-soldier struggling to find a job to help his single Brooklyn mom (Luna Lauren Vélez) and his adorable kid brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), whose treatment for sickle cell disease is being cut off by the hospital because of non-payment.  Hobbled by a poor reference from a military superior, Noah reluctantly agrees to help hip neighborhood hustler Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) do a car heist.

Elena’s a museum worker expert at identifying archaeological artifacts, whose boss (Sarah Stiles) takes credit for her work.  When an odd bird sculpture (looking rather like the Maltese Falcon) is delivered, Elena suggests that it’s not Egyptian, as believed, but of Aztec or Mayan origin.  When she surreptitiously analyzes it, it cracks open, revealing a glowing rod hidden inside.

That is, in fact, a transwarp key which, as a prologue has informed us, was taken from their planet by a group of Maximals headed by Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) to prevent it from being used by the world-devouring Unicron (Colman Domingo), who had conquered their abode, to zoom to yet another tasty planet.  Its uncovering is detected by Unicron, who sends his cruel lieutenant Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and a bunch of other Terrorcons to retrieve it.

But its presence is also intuited by the good Autobots, headed by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who have been hiding in vehicular form on earth and need it to get home.  He summons all of them to the museum, including Mirage (Pete Davidson), who happens to be the car Noah is trying to steal.  He takes the human along with him on a wild chase with police in full pursuit, the first of the movie’s big set-pieces.  Scourge and his forces also arrive at the museum, leading to the second, a battle between Autobots and Terrorcons in which Optimus is saved by the sudden arrival of Maximal Airazor (Michelle Yeoh). 

In the aftermath it’s revealed that what Scourge has acquired is only half the key, and both Noah and Elena are enlisted in the Autobots’ search for the remaining half.  That takes them all to Peru, where the other Maximals come out of hiding to aid in defeating Scourge.  Many further battles follow before…well, you know.  Presumably sequels are intended to bridge the gap between this narrative and that of Michael Bay’s 2007-2017 series of five films; one of the two final-credits interpolations, featuring Ramos and Michael Kelly, suggests that another moribund Paramount franchise might somehow be melded into the continuation.

If you understand any of this folderol, you’re clearly in the target audience of “Rise of the Beasts.”  Stephen Caple Jr. directs with efficiency if little imagination, while Ramos, Fishback and the other human actors attempt to keep straight faces while going through the paces of their threadbare characters, though it’s difficult when the dialogue concocted by no fewer than five writers recalls nothing more than clichés familiar from forties chapter serials and innumerable B-action pictures.  The same sort of control is required of the voice performers, and one must feel especially sorry for Dinklage, who has to deliver Scourge’s tediously repeated orders to kill folks with a semblance of conviction.  The screenplay does make some attempt to include intentional humor in the mix, mostly in terms of the contributions of Davidson’s Mirage, but these often come across as limp improvisation on the part of the actor.

The greater part of the picture consists, however, not of live action but computer animation, and the effects, supervised by Gary Brozenich, are decent enough, even if over the course of two hours they become awfully repetitive.  Under the circumstances the production design (Sean Haworth) and widescreen cinematography (Enrique Chediak) are more than adequate, though editors William Goldenberg and Joel Negron could easily have trimmed some of the tedious battle footage.  The music score by Jongnic “JB” Bontemps is generic bombast, but one appreciates it because the first forty minutes or so of the movie are accompanied by a parade of hideous hip-hop numbers, and their replacement by orchestral material, however banal, comes as respite.

It appears that “Bumblebee” was but a momentary uptick in this generally dreadful toy-based movie franchise.  “Rise of the Beasts” isn’t as bad as the worst of the Bay series, but it’s mediocre, and certainly doesn’t provide justification for further installments, except perhaps in box office terms.