Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Director Dave Green 2016.
Starring Pete Plozek, Alan Richardson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Tyler Perry, Brian Tee, Laura Linney.
112 mins.

Sewer-dwelling heroes Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael are called into action when arch-enemy Shredder escapes police custody. Unbeknown to them, Shredder has made a deal with a bizarre extra-terrestrial warlord who plans to conquer the earth. At the same time, the Turtles argue about their true place in the scheme of things; should they reveal themselves to humanity, or stay hidden?

DESPITE BEING CREATED as a gag – a parody of hot 80’s comics X-Men (teenage mutants) and Daredevil (ninjas) – the Turtles have become some of the most enduring comicbook characters over the past thirty years. Their explosion of popularity in the 80s and early 90s – topped off by three cinematic outings – died down, but they lived on in video games, TV shows and an underrated animated movie in 2007. Now the enormous modern success of the superhero genre means even relatively unknown characters like Hellboy and Ghost Rider are hit for big screen franchises; it was never going to be long before the heroes in a half-shell – household names – returned.

Out of the Shadows – following the success of the 2014 sugar-rush reboot simply titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – is laser-targeted to appeal to kids and fans: the former with its vibrant colour, juvenile humour and harmless fight scenes (blink and you’ll miss any actual martial arts); the latter by bringing in beloved characters and vehicles from the comics and cartoons, and even a wink to Vanilla Ice, who appeared in the original Turtles trilogy back in the 90s. Despite the obvious box-ticking, Out of the Shadows is fast and fun, with just enough dramatic weight to avoid floating away on the breeze.

The highpoint, as with the previous movie, is the titular pizza-loving reptiles themselves. Rendered in state-of-the-art CGI, meticulously detailed and astonishingly lifelike, they represent the completion of a dream that began so long ago with characters like Jar-Jar Binks. They make Out of the Shadows worth a look just to see how far special effects have progressed, from the fabric of their bandanas to the subtlety of their facial expressions. The script and motion-captured performances add to this to create four unique and likeable characters that are fleshed out without overriding their usual functions as leader (Leo), hot head (Raph), brains (Donnie) and party animal (Mikey).

In the original flicks and comics, the Turtles were small and scrappy; and one might take issue with the bulky, almost steroidal redesign of them here. They look more conventionally heroic but seem unsuited to slinking around the shadows, and they loom over friend and foe alike; the hulking, aggressive Raphael comes across as almost a bully. Equally, their sewer den is curiously clean and appealing, more akin to an underground amusement arcade than a grimy concrete maze. Lula Carvalho’s lush cinematography makes everything look a million dollars, but the salvaged aesthetic – the Turtles repurposing whatever junk they find washed down below – is lost.

The Turtles are the MVPs, but the rest of the cast fill their designated roles efficiently. Giant rat sensei Splinter is the perfect mix of Bruce Lee and Yoda, extolling sage advice to his youthful charges whilst taking out the trash when need-be – or for a laugh, as is the case here. Megan Fox, despite constantly being reduced to eye candy, gets the tone of the piece spot on and seems to be enjoying herself throughout as best bud April O’Neill. Will Arnett returns as comic relief Verne, who has taken the thanks for the Turtle’s previous heroics and exploits it shamelessly. Laura Linney inexplicably turns up as a tough police chief; and Steven Amell appears as fan-favourite hockey-loving vigilante Casey Jones, likeable despite an unwarranted origin story as a wannabe-cop.

The Turtles are rendered in state-of-the-art CGI, meticulously detailed and astonishingly lifelike

The bad guys are less well served. Squid-like extra-terrestrial conqueror Krang arrives as a gooey end-of-level boss, providing a degree of cosmic (and comedic) menace. But Brian Tee’s Shredder – reduced from the 7-foot armoured titan of the previous movie – has almost nothing to do; and Tyler Perry’s super-scientist Baxter Stockman stands around in a lab coat saying things like, ‘I’ve created a handheld version of the teleportation device.’

What really lets the side down though is the presence of Bebop and Rocksteady, imbecilic street punks mutated via alien ooze into a humanoid rhino and warthog respectively. Undoing a lot of the hard work done to make the Turtles themselves believable characters, these brainless beastmen are like three-dimensional Looney Tunes, exaggerated and silly. Using them as henchman rather than his ultra stealthy and efficient Foot ninjas makes Shredder look a bit silly, and their antics grow tiresome almost straight away.

The movie is on safer ground with the action sequences; there’s real ambition here, along with the advantage of computer generated heroes who can do things real actors and stuntmen cannot. An early chase-come-escape sequence features motorbikes, ninjas, a helicopter, the Turtles in their customized garbage truck, and Shredder escaping an armoured car in transit. Even better, the second act ends with a trio of frenetic set-pieces which see the Turtles leap between planes in mid-air (mostly sans-parachute), then scrapping with Bebop and Rocksteady both in the second plane as it crashes into the Amazon, and in the water itself. Oh, and there’s a tank involved as well. And a waterfall.

The finale attempts to top this with a truly Avengers-scale threat; Krang’s spherical spaceship the Technodrome appears above New York piece-by-piece, and begins assembling itself like a Lego Death Star. Cue some effective shots of crowds on streets and river boats gazing up at the sky in awe, while the Turtles surf the pieces to tackle Krang at the centre. It’s here that the CGI finally overwhelms, throwing so much at the viewer that individual actions, such as the choreography of the fighting, are hard to comprehend.

There’s also a moral dilemma to be faced, albeit via some joyously simplistic science; the liquid used to turn Shredder’s goons into animals can also turn the Turtles human. This creates further rifts among the already conflicted foursome: Michelangelo and Raphael are desperate to be accepted among humanity, while Leonardo assures them their place is in the shadows. The resolution reaffirms the positive messages about family and teamwork that has always been a key fixture of the Turtle’s adventures.

Out of the Shadows is an amusing burst of nostalgia and an impressive technical exercise, which also packs in great set-pieces and a surprising level of characterisation. The Turtles are as engaging as ever; even if the CGI excesses make the viewer sometimes long for the rubber-suits and actual martial arts of the original movies.

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Review by Sour Vintage

 

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