With the exception of Man of Steel’s climactic collateral damage, there’s been few more controversial comic book movie decisions than the retconned origins and ’roided-out character designs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Jonathan Liebesman’s turgid 2014 reboot. Zack Snyder responded to fans’ cries with a full excoriation in the form of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows doubles down on the anthropomorphic craziness of its predecessor, creating a sequel that not only acknowledges the aesthetic ugliness of its four turtle heroes, but pushes the characters even further into the Uncanny Valley.
Out of the Shadows immediately establishes its bonafides with a sequence of the turtles wall-riding on the Empire State Building on the way to watch the New York Knicks from the rafters in Madison Square Garden. In comparison to the dour blandness of the characters in the 2014 original, the chemistry and character beats of each teenaged, mutant, ninja-trained Turtle—what with their origin story (as in: how they became four teenaged, mutant and ninjas) out of the way—is palpable, more lived-in, even though they engage in the same shenanigans as before: ribbing each other, gorging themselves on pizza and acting like genuine brothers.
For about the first hour or so, Out of the Shadows is similarly fleet footed in its plotting, reuniting the turtles with their surface liaison, April O’Neil (Megan Fox), and setting up the return of series nemesis Shredder (Brian Tee) alongside comic favorites like Bebop (The Boondocks’ Gary Anthony Williams), Rocksteady (WWE wrestler Stephen Farrelly) and the wannabe cop/hockey obsessive/masked vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). Bebop and Rocksteady are immediately memorable as a pair of meatball-brained small-timers who get transformed into animal/human hybrids by Shredder and his new poindexter lackey, Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry). They’re obnoxious by design, resorting to atrocious puns and gross behavior, but the sheer energy and gusto behind bringing the duo straight from the beloved cartoon series to the screen makes them work on a viscerally goofy level.
Probably because, like other odd “superhero” movies Thor or X-Men: First Class, Out of the Shadows knows that it doesn’t need to take itself too seriously to give gravity to its characters—that, compared to the first film, the franchise needed a lot less self-seriousness. The film constantly recognizes its own insanity (and, almost by extension, the insanity of similar summer blockbuster movies of its ilk), whether in a hardline police chief (Laura Linney) remarking on the absurdity of a situation, or in a scene where a fight is stopped because the fight accidentally destroys the place in which they’re fighting.
In particular, a setpiece at 35,000 feet is continuously inventive: The turtles rappel to another plane, butt heads with Bebop and Rocksteady, and end up on an impromptu swim in Brazil. Head and shoulders above anything from the franchise’s previous installment (by the mere virtue that it’s visually coherent), the action throughout this film is generally inflected with a strong sense of personality—like a scene where April and Casey tag-team a horde of ninjas with a lead pipe and hockey stick—which is about as close as we’re probably ever going to get to character development in a world where bandana color and weapon-of-choice designate individuality.
The actual content of the story is far less engaging, evoking The Avengers with the assembly of a MacGuffin that opens a black hole, and a doomsday plot by Krang (Brad Garrett), an otherworldly brain-thing. Krang was easily going to be the most difficult villain from the cartoons to translate into live action, and he looks particularly grotesque with his bulbous design, but casting Garrett (over previously announced Fred Armisen) was a misstep, the actor trading his usual booming voice for a scrunched, irritating squeak.
New series director Dave Green fits snugly enough within the Michael bay mold, unleashing hyperactive musical cues, and overloading each frame. Green doesn’t always find the right rhythm to his scenes, but he does eventually achieve a pretty spot-on, workmanlike balance to the tone of the movie. Out of the Shadows is still firmly under the umbrella of producer Bay’s work with the contractual obligation of having at least a dozen cars explode, and one shot of leery opportunism involving Fox donning a schoolgirl outfit, but there’s ultimately a surprising emotional resonance to Out of the Shadows, especially in the Turtles wondering whether they could ever live normal lives, as seen in a vibrant visual sequence wherein orange-identified, nunchaku-wielding Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) sneaks into the midst of a Halloween parade procession. As always, it’s never easy being green.
Director: Dave Green
Writers: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Stephen Amell, Tyler Perry, Brad Garrett, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Laura Linney
Release Date: June 3, 2016