You may recall that I wasn't an especially big fan of Paramount's big budget Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot when it hit theaters two summers ago. On top of a whole host of narrative issues, probably my biggest issue with the Michael Bay-produced, Jonathan Liebesman-directed opus was the way it seemed embarrassed of its own premise. As I said at the time:
I'm not saying they needed to go as far as the bonkers 'talking brain space aliens' stuff from the '80s cartoon," but in attempting to make this telling feel more "grounded" and realistic, it only draws more attention to the essential artifice of the whole endeavor.
The only reason I bring that up is that about fifteen minutes into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the new sequel directed by David Green, the exact same "talking brain space alien" referenced earlier showed up, robot body and all. And just like that, I knew who this movie was aimed at, and, completely unbidden, a big goofy grin formed on my face. It's been a long time since I was that nine-year-old boy playing with Ninja Turtles action figures in my backyard, but this is the exact movie that kid would've loved to have seen.
The plot this time (with script by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, who also wrote the last one) has main baddie Shredder (Brian Tee) escaping from prison custody to orchestrate a typically gonzo plan to teleport an alien fortress from another dimension into ours, with which he can conquer the planet, etc. Why does he want to do this? Because he's Shredder, and that's just kind of his thing. To this end, he's aided by evil scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and two new mutant lackeys, warthog Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and rhinoceros Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly).
Naturally our Heroes in a Half-Shell (Leo, Raph, Donnie, and Mikey) are there to stop him, along with their human pal, ace reporter April O'Neill (Megan Fox, back for her second go), and franchise newbie Stephan Amell (seemingly having way more fun here than the last few seasons of Arrow) as cop-turned-vigilante Casey Jones. Of course, that's not the only trial the turtles must face. With leader Leonardo struggling to align his brothers' disparate dispositions even as they're longing to join the surface world, there's an actual undercurrent of emotion that I can easily see landing with the movie's target audience.
And the phrase "target audience" is a key one. Director Green has mentioned in interviews how a formative part of his childhood was watching the 1980s Turtles animated show every weekday afternoon, and it's hard not to see that influence all over this. In the very best sense of the word, this feels like an episode of that show come to life on a larger scale. As paradoxical as it sounds, by embracing the inherent absurdity of its own premise, it ends up taking the concept more seriously -- the same way kids do.
Feeling at times like a point-by-point refutation of everything that made the last one such a laborious slog, Out of the Shadows builds on whatever worked and abandons the rest. It's big, it's goofy, but it also plays straight with itself. From 1990 to know, we've had six Ninja Turtles flicks, the majority of which have been pretty lousy, so when I say Out of the Shadows is the best of the bunch, it's kind of a shallow pool. Nonetheless, here we are. It isn't a perfect movie, but it's certainly a close-to-perfect translation of the turtles and their world. B+
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