Heroes in a Half-Assed Shell
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise is, inherently, silly. But for a concept as convoluted as mutated ninja turtle brothers who love pizza, fight crime, encounter aliens, and occasionally time travel is, TMNT can be pushed and pulled in different directions while still working incredibly well as a fun and massive franchise. After the 2014 live action reboot debuted to big numbers yet serious complaints from fans and critics alike, the newest entry in the franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was clearly designed as a course correct for the film series, embracing big and colorful characters and an extremely heightened sense of fun akin to the early ‘90s cartoon series, yet with the special effects steroids that are par for the course with a Michael Bay-produced film.
That embrace of everything wild and wacky about the turtles is certainly commendable in its efforts, especially given the dark, faux-edgy, and oh so very misguided nature of the 2014 film. But there’s still a sense of watering down felt throughout Out of the Shadows, a certain demand to filter everything through the “Bayformers” lens that leaves things feeling surprisingly bland at points. Yet the vibrant strangeness of the TMNT series is here to a greater degree than ever before, helping to propel the film and bring it closer to the desires of longtime fans. It’s also plotted like an early ‘90s cartoon, filled with sudden character introductions that lack any real meaning, world domination plans that have no real purpose, and vague world-ending weapons that need to be both assembled and defeated in a very video game logic sort of way. If the logic feels thudding to the point of brain damage, it may just be that way on purpose. The only option is to either roll with the punches or get knocked out by them.
In TMNT: Out of the Shadows, we catch up with ninja turtle brothers Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello as they continue to fight crime in secret throughout New York. But when old nemesis The Shredder escapes from police custody to join forces with the scientist Dr. Baxter Stockman and the interdimensional warlord known as Krang, the turtles and their compatriots face a potentially world-ending threat.
There’s a strange hit and miss quality to the latest Turtles film that can be seen in both its takes on various characters and its set pieces. Out of the Shadows can go from the dizzyingly fun and ridiculous, like the plane fight/plane crash/river rapids fight that closes out the film’s second act and is easily the best scene, to the drab and limp, like all manner of police interrogations concerning the turtles. When Out of the Shadows is allowed to embrace the zaniness of its concepts and lets that inform the action, the result is simple, silly, well-executed fun. And when, for whatever reason, it’s not, it quickly grows forgettable.
There’s no greater evidence of this than in the juxtaposition of new villains Rocksteady (Sheamus) and Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) versus new hero Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). As Rocksteady and Bebop, two criminals turned into massive rhino and warthog hybrids, respectively, Sheamus and Williams are tons of fun. They’re big, they’re brash, they’re silly in all the right ways, and are pitch perfect interpretations of the characters. These two are easily the high points of the film. On the other hand, Amell’s Casey Jones is whiny, boring, bland, and unnecessary. That’s not to mention that he isn’t like his cartoon/comic counterpart in the slightest save for brief aesthetic choices. He has no real point other than to provide another human protagonist, yet his scenes simply take up space and push the turtles to the sidelines.
And therein lies a problem. One of the few strengths of the 2014 film was that the movie got the turtles’ personalities and dynamics right, which carries over to this sequel. Yet they still don’t pop enough to create real investment into their stories. Sure, the CGI here is strong to the point of being largely unnoticeable, with the turtles and their hybrid foes being cartoonish enough to avoid the uncanny valley and the turtles themselves have a far better, less cartoonish design than before. But a minor subplot involving poor team dynamics and their sudden desire to be human doesn’t quite hack it, since there’s never any real development or true arcs, just a couple problems and their eventual solutions.
Like the Transformers films, Out of the Shadows doesn’t understand how to create a central protagonist and maintain a narrative focus. While supporting players like Megan Fox and Amell work well enough in their roles, the sheer amount of characters that share lead roles dilutes the film, even one as light and fluffy as this.
Also, Krang? Not that good. He may look pretty much like his comic version (but way grosser), but he’s given no motivation, little screentime, a seriously clumsy introduction, and the most generic of climactic fights. Yes, the film has guts for including such a wild character, but they didn’t know what to do with him. The same goes for The Shredder, whose main purpose is to stand around looking stern and barking orders, and Splinter, who moseys around in the middle distance, occasionally spouting clichéd sage wisdom. When characters like these are by default included in the film, yet used for little more than plot points, it’s difficult to see them as anything more than little playthings used for set dressing.
It’s strange that TMNT: Out of the Shadows can get so much right about its central characters and world, yet still come up short so consistently. But for those who love all things TMNT, there will be enough to love to sit through its weaker elements.