Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows: You Know, For Kids!, by Scott Nye
I didn’t see Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Paramount’s 2014 attempt to reinvigorate the dormant brand in the wake of their success with the Transformers and G.I. Joe films. It looked pretty boring. Audiences seemed to agree, giving the film a modest B through CinemaScore, and so we now have a new director (Dave Green) and a decidedly new tone (more indebted to the popular cartoon from the 1990s). The result, whatever you want to say about it, is far from boring – in 112 minutes, they have four significant villains, a new hero, wall-to-wall action, and zero time for introspection. Also a talking brain. For those of us weary of underdeveloped characters brooding on their place in this world, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a bit of a breath of fresh air, and while it doesn’t push its simple conceit far enough to truly transcend its meager promise, this at least takes its ostensible target audience – kids – seriously enough to deliver on it.
The film quite kindly catches up those who missed its predecessor – bad guy Shredder (Brian Tee) was defeated, but the Turtles – Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Michelangelo (Noel Fiscer)- haven’t yet revealed themselves to the world, letting news cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) take credit. This isn’t sitting well with everyone, especially the more impulsive Michelangelo and Raphael, and whatever emotional arc the film nods to is more or less tied to this central conflict. Based on the title, you can imagine where they end up. While they’re basking in their hidden victory, watching out to ensure Shredder sees safe prison transport, their colleague April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is investigating scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), who has a hidden agenda of his own, and this is where the plot really goes off the rails. Generally speaking, it involves a mutant formula, some special totem items that must be gathered and assembled, a new hockey-playing vigilante (Arrow’s Stephen Amell), a team-up between Shredder and Krang (a talking brain inside a robot), and inter-dimensional travel. And of course it all concludes with a spaceship towering over a city, because that’s just how you do. The particulars of how these all relate are so far beyond the film’s concerns; screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec have thought it out enough to briefly mention the turns, and that’s really all you need.
I was rather taken with Green’s hopeful and melancholic Earth to Echo, and while Out of the Shadows doesn’t have its sights quite so high, it does have an infectious sort of energy and a similar respect for what kids want to see at the movies. Too often in big branded entertainment we’re left with these two-and-a-half-hour lumbering treatises on honor, heroism, and a belabored backstory involving sometimes centuries of legends and stuff. Out of the Shadows uses the absolute bare minimum of story to move the plot along, just excited as all get-out to introduce Krang, Shredder’s new henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady (a giant talking warthog and rhino, respectively), a mid-air showdown on a crumbling airplane, a garbage truck that fires manhole covers, and lots and lots of pizza. The cast is pretty responsive to this approach, pulling their work away from the heavy-heartedness we too often see and into a more cartoonish mold. When even Amell, who can’t even wake up week to week for his own TV show, is magnetic and charming, you know the filmmaker who’s managed to spark something in his cast.
However, while the conceptions for the action scenes are pretty uniformly great, I was constantly left feeling that they didn’t quite push them as far as they could. In the first big chase, for example, the Turtles are on the heels of a prison transport wagon as a group of ninjas free Shredder. But there’s nothing really holding them back from catching up to the van and fighting the ninjas. One can gather, perhaps, that both vehicles are traveling as fast as they can, but the simple addition of a team of ninjas fighting the Turtles in their own truck would make their pursuit more tenuous and difficult, giving plenty of time for Shredder to more reasonably break free. The set pieces get more complex and interesting as the film goes on – the airplane battle and the climactic fight with Krang being the highlights – but they never quite blow past a certain modesty of scale and scope that would turn the fights truly desperate and thrilling.
Still, I had a good enough time with it. I’ve never read the old Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird comics upon which this rather odd franchise has been based; I only know the Ninja Turtles as a brand extension, through the 80s/90s movies and the subsequent cartoon show. It’s a weird, dumb premise featuring weird, dumb characters. Green has done an admirable job making a moderately weird, dumb and fun movie out of it.