Well, it took 26 years and six attempts, but they finally made a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie that I enjoyed! Which is magnanimous of them, since I wasn’t the target audience and never expressed any interest in being part of it. But “Out of the Shadows,” the sequel to 2014’s loud, dumb reboot, at last achieves the goal the franchise has been reaching for all along: It’s made for 12-year-olds without “made for 12-year-olds” being meant as an insult.
Often, that designation means a movie is shallow and lazy, or that it panders to a juvenile sense of humor, or that it’s full of plot holes and incoherence that the filmmakers assume kids won’t notice or care about. In truth, “12-year-olds” is often shorthand for “idiots.” This film, on the other hand, is jocular, easy-going, and occasionally funny. Everyone has clear motives and goals, and the conflicts (and zippy action scenes) make logical sense, arising out of character and not out of contrivance. The Turtles are glib, but not annoyingly or mindlessly so, and they’re capable of serious conversations about important things. Like a good comic-book sequel, the story brings back old villains, introduces news ones, and expands on the established mythology. It’s a better, more lucid superhero movie than “Batman v Superman” was, not that that’s saying much.
You notice almost immediately that the film wants to be straightforward and un-confusing, like the Saturday morning cartoon it should have been. Right at the top, the four Turtles are reintroduced by name, along with their chief character traits — Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) the leader, Raphael (Alan Ritchson) the muscles, Donatello (Jeremy Howard) the brains, and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) the goofball. Later in the film, they introduce themselves to a new ally, corrections officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), effectively reiterating the lineup for viewers who may otherwise have trouble telling the almost-identical Turtles apart.
Key dialogue and plot points are reiterated frequently. When the Turtles get word that associates of Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the murderous villain they captured in the last movie, are planning to help him escape from prison, Donny declares, “They’re gonna break him out! He’ll be free again!” In the next scene, Donny repeats the message almost verbatim to Splinter (voice of Tony Shalhoub), who then says it again in different words, adding something along the lines of how Shredder will be able to resume his reign of terror. Most of the dialogue is declarative like that, a quality that makes me roll my eyes or sigh with boredom when it’s in an adult movie, but which is perfectly suitable for one intended for kids. (An even better movie would do this without being obvious about it, but we’re taking baby steps here.)
The villains, too, keep restating their mission in simple terms. (Like 37% of all films, this one is about an effort to collect the mystical artifacts required to open a portal to somewhere.) Besides Shredder, there’s Krang (Brad Garrett), an intelligent, slimy alien who looks like a cross between an octopus and a brain and who resides in the chest cavity of a powerful robot that does not always obey his instructions. Krang seems like something out of “Futurama,” which is fine with me. When he enlists Shredder to retrieve the artifacts so that he (Krang) can invade Earth, he also gives him a purple ooze that can turn people into mutated animals. Shredder uses it on two unwilling fellow convicts, Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly), who become an oversized warthog and rhino, respectively — and they love it. Bebop and Rocksteady (the movie makes sure to repeatedly say their names together like that, “Bebop and Rocksteady”) LOVE being powerful mutants who wreck things. Their enthusiasm is delightful.
Donny figures out (well, he actually just guesses) that the purple ooze could also make the Turtles look human. Then they wouldn’t have to hide in the sewers and let vain photographer Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) take all the credit for their heroics. The Turtles disagree among themselves on the merits of this idea, leading to a schism — a major no-no for a group that relies on unity and teamwork. When Splinter tells Leo that “it’s the different points of view that make the team strong,” I realized with astonishment that his statement makes sense because the Turtles are actually four distinct individuals this time, rather than being interchangeable. Leo’s on a bit of a power trip as the squad’s leader, Raphael is a hothead sometimes, Donny has a crush on April O’Neil (Megan Fox, gradually getting better at this whole “acting” thing), and Mikey is kind of a sweet, carefree little brother.
All of this is at odds with the film’s chaotic, brainless predecessor. There’s a new director (Dave Green, who made “Earth to Echo”), but two of the three screenwriters, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, are the same. Maybe we should blame the 2014 film’s badness on its third writer, Evan Daugherty, who wasn’t involved this time? Let’s see, Daugherty’s credits also include “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Divergent.” So yeah, I’m comfortable with that.
I don’t mean to suggest that “Out of the Shadows” is excellent. None of the humans are very interesting (though Tyler Perry’s mad scientist, clearly inspired by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is close), and everything to do with Casey Jones and police chief Laura Linney is wasted energy. (She doesn’t believe his story about shadowy ninjas trying to thwart Shredder’s escape, even though it happened during a high-speed freeway chase that must have been witnessed by hundreds of people.) It’s also yet another film where the climax has parts of New York City being destroyed by a massive weaponized planetoid hovering overhead. But it treats its ridiculous heroes and premise just seriously enough for us to buy into it without getting TOO serious, which makes a huge amount of difference.
Look, maybe the rest of you learned how to tell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles apart years ago. Maybe the cheerful, slightly off-beat tone of the movie is how the comics or TV cartoon always were. Or maybe it’s a betrayal of those things! Maybe true TMNT fans will hate this. Don’t know, don’t care. I had fun with it.
(NOTE: Research indicates I also kind of enjoyed the animated one from 2007, the one called “TMNT.” I don’t recall this, but I’ll take my word for it.)
B (1 hr., 52 min.; )