I [gulp] kind of liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sure, it’s lazy, pandering, openly disdainful of its source material, and gross, both visually (Splinter, for one, was in desperate need of a bath) and for the way everyone seems to want to have sex with Megan Fox. However, the opening section of the film is a spot-on Batman parody, and once the turtles arrive the four voice actors (Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson) make for a surprisingly strong comedy quartet. Moreover, there are multiple effective Whedon-esque plays on genre conventions. At the very least, it’s not quite the complete cinematic dumpster fire many would have you believe.
I’m in the minority on that, though. As such, I am not surprised to discover Out of the Shadows made multiple course corrections to improve upon its predecessor; I’m just left with a movie which gave me little to nothing work with.
It’s not all bad, I suppose. The computer animation has been significantly improved (e.g., the turtles don’t all have the same exact roided-out body type anymore). This the Turtle’s story, not April O’Neil’s, who was the foregrounded audience surrogate in the first film but barely registers at all in the sequel. Relatedly, the “everyone wants to bang Megan Fox” content has been significantly scaled back. Laura Linney bolsters the supporting cast as a no-nonsense police chief.
Sadly, though, all of the self-referential jokes are gone, and genre conventions are only meant to be upheld, not subverted or mocked. The tone, plot, and action seem to be modeled after the animated series, certainly more so than last time around, although there is still very little ninja fighting and a whole lot of them simply falling down from great heights. All of the new villains, allies, and gadgets are unimaginatively plucked (and in a couple of cases barely updated) from every millennial’s childhood toy collection:
KRANG (voiced quite unfortunately by Brad Garrett, oddly striving for both low and high notes simultaneously)
The very video-gamey, quest-based plot [spoiler alert] involves the last film’s big bad, Shredder (Brian Tee, all brood, no bite), pulling a Dark Knight-esque prisoner transfer escape with the help of a mad scientist (Perry’s Baxter Stockman) using recovered alien technology. However, the alien, Krang (just as hideous-looking as always), retakes the tech and makes a “let’s take over the world together” pact with Shredder as long as he recovers two more pieces of alien tech scattered across the globe. Krang can’t do it on his own because he’s stuck in a different dimension. Shredder’s afraid to do it on his own because the Turtles are after him. So, he turns two idiotic henchmen (Bebop and Rocksteady) into animal-human hybrids and makes them do it.
As for the good guys, April’s around on the periphery, following her hunch about Baxter being in league with Shredder, and Casey Jones is the oddly upbeat corrections officer taking matters into his own hands due to the responsibility he feels from failing to stop Shredder from escaping during the prisoner transfer. As in the last film, the turtles have an arc (Leo’s worried they don’t work as a team) which is often obstructed by the plot (every time they argue about it something major pops up to distract them), but they have a secondary arc which, though thinly explained, delivers fairly standard, but effective X-Men-esque “mutants vs. society”/identity crisis drama.
At least the Turtles have a believable chemistry and group dynamic as brothers. Megan Fox is as inert as always (outside of New Girl, of course), and Amell brings entirely the wrong energy to the proceedings, despite his obvious enthusiasm. He should have brought his voice-modulator with him from Arrow because without his low, scary Oliver Queen-voice most of his shouting sounds about as scary as a puppy yawning. Will Arnett’s Vern returns in a reduced role, but he again proves to be the only human character who knows his way around a good joke and physical gag.
Ideally, by the end the kids in the audience will walk away having learned lessons about teamwork and self-acceptance, though you can cynically argue the main goal is to convince the kids to beg their parents to buy them a bunch of TMNT-related toys.
And that used to be me. I was that kid walking away from the first two live-action TMNT movies in the 90s begging my parents for toys. As an adult, though, I felt mostly out of place watching Out of the Shadows. I now have a familiarity with but not a passion for the Turtles. Simply giving me the Technodrome, for example, doesn’t instantly bring down the nostalgia-blinders, especially if I think it looks far too similar to Zod’s Man of Steel doomsday machine.
Beyond that, if you’re going to consistently take everything so seriously (which Out of the Shadows does after its’ admittedly funny opening scene) you’re cutting off the release valve which helped me get through the first movie. To get by I’ll do little things to stay engaged, such as keeping count of Megan Fox’s limited facial expressions (she uses 4, maybe 5 tops in this movie) or picturing the probably stunning new bathroom Laura Linney added to her house with her Out of the Shadows paycheck.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Turtles still have their charm, both individually and as a group, but if they are to be shoved into an overstuffed movie and surrounded by mostly miscast human characters at least let there be plenty of good jokes. Unless you’re a kid, Out of the Shadows doesn’t even have that. As the cartoon version of Michaelangelo I grew up with might have said, total bummer. But, hey, at least the CGI looks much better this time around.
34% – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a slight improvement over its predecessor, but still lacks the wit or anarchic energy of the comics that birthed the franchise.