There is a scene midway through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows that is equal parts ludicrous and inexplicably amusing. What else could describe a talking, half-finished computer generated brain, tethered from the torso of a robotic strongman in an image that resembles a sentient, chewed piece of bubblegum escaping the body via C-section? This character, in the loosest sense of the term, is the villainous Kraang, and his introduction is borderline Ed Woodian in its incomprehensible madness.
Of course, fans of the long-time silliness that is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would recognize this multi-tentacle, Lovecraftian nightmare as a literal Saturday morning cartoon villain with schemes for world domination brought to (relative) digital life. But remembering your ’80s nostalgia goggles and actually bearing witness to 2016 special effects are two different things entirely, and this thoroughly bizarre creation is so peculiarly out there that it could either be the harbinger of blockbuster demons to come or a delicious embrace of gonzo wackiness that these multiplex fillers so desperately need.
Alas then that moments of such weirdness are the exception rather than the rule. For despite being about six-foot tall mutated reptiles, the tone and pace of this live-action cartoon is decidedly normal, right down to its save the world and/or city destruction porn, as well as producer Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes’ patented sense of humor involving plenty of fart and dick jokes to go around. Occasionally, the movie tips the scale to the original cartoon’s most acid trip-inspired visions and tonal shifts—particularly whenever Noel Fisher’s infectiously gnarly performance as Michelangelo is taking up screen time. But when crossing off so many boxes on a blockbuster checklist, it’s hard to surf on even the movie’s most shallow of good vibes.
The plot, to use the term liberally, centers around the Turtles wanting to take credit for saving the world during the 2014 film. However, they are ninjas of the night and Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) does not wish for them to be revealed to an untrustworthy city. But the matter might be taken out of their hands, because their Girl Friday April O’Neil (Megan Fox) has learned that the villainous Shredder (Brian Tee) is being transported to county, and Baxter Stockman (a questionable Tyler Perry) is planning to break him free while en route.
In actuality, the Shredder ends up being freed by the aforementioned Kraang (Brad Garrett) in that ludicrous scene involving a Jersey-sized exposition dump. Kraang wants Shredder and Stockman to collect two keys, one helpfully in Manhattan and the other in the Brazilian rainforest, that will allow him to invade Earth and take over the world. Shredder agrees, because… well, I’m not really sure why, but the point is he agrees. Kraang also gives Shredder a luminous purple ooze that turns humans into their dormant animal ancestors, and in theory it would also transition the Turtles into humans.
This is par for the course for Mikey and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), who are tired of the cowardly Vernon (Will Arnett) taking credit for their heroism, but Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) do not wish to let the team go their separate ways, especially after the Shredder turns Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) into a giant walking and talking warthog and rhinoceros, respectively.
Also, Stephen Amell is in this movie for some reason as Casey Jones, an ex-cop/roller-skating vigilante.
It should be first said that Out of the Shadows is a considerable improvement over 2014’s previous TMNT reboot. Director Dave Green serviceably takes over the directorial reins and infuses the sequel with a real love for a specific era of Ninja Turtles: the 1987 cartoon show. Bebop and Rocksteady, mainstays from that series, get plenty of scenes to wreak havoc and pratfall in gags, both for the kids (they love eating lots of Spaghetti!) and what is presumably targeted toward their parents in classic Michael Bay fashion—such as their first action after being transformed into giant animals is to check out the size of their packages. Naturally.
When operating more on nostalgia for the old show, the film gives in to its wilder ideas and offers the Turtles a straightforward story about self-acceptance. Or in other words, the kids will love whenever Mikey is onscreen talking about pizza or bouncing around with more over-caffeinated glee than a game show host. However, these rad elements that are as loony as the film’s title are also buried under the need to obey a formula and succumb to the worst tendencies of market-tested products aimed at children.
The plot, structure, and even the Turtles themselves are mostly perfunctory, especially when they’re trying to be serious. Tee’s Shredder is somehow even more of an afterthought than in the previous film, curiously making those old enough to long for the days when he was at least a passable Darth Vader clone. And while Amell, Arnett, and Perry look psyched to be here and to do a film for the kids, they’re no better utilized than the folks phoning it in both in front of and behind the camera. And from the script’s page onward, there are many.
The result is a numbing viewing experience for anyone over the age of 14. Indeed, you can almost touch the bland sense of innocuous mediocrity as it passes you by.
Still, it is not the worst superhero movie this year, not in a season where Batman tried to stab Superman in the heart with a kryptonite spear. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and what it is selling with its garishly rendered CG Turtles vs. farting warthogs. But of course, your mileage will vary, especially for those with little interest in old, reheated cinematic pizza.