I never thought I would miss the first wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies. The foam rubber-suited lead characters and tongue-in-cheek humour were very much of their time, almost a time capsule of 1990s genre cheese. Just as “The Secret of the Ooze” et al are emblematic of their day, the CGI fest “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows” is symbolic of its time. Trouble is, I have no nostalgia for pixels and bytes no matter how artfully arranged on the screen.
The action begins one year after the events of the last film. The turtles—leader Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), the rebellious Raphael (Alan Ritchson), good-time turtle Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and the brains of the outfit, Donatello (Jeremy Howard)—saved the world by bringing super duper bad guy Shredder (Brian Tee) to justice. News cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) got all the credit, and is now a media darling. The turtles, however, are content to stay in the shadows, afraid that people won’t accept them because they are all turtlely. And ninja-esque.
Now trouble has come back to town as Shredder escapes police custody and forms an alliance with inventor Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), two mutants named Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (WWE Superstar Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly) and Kraang (Fred Armisen), a slimy alien octopus with a robotic shell. “Together we can bring the people of your planet to their knees,” crows the mucus covered ET.
The heroes on the half shell, along with their old sidekicks April O’Neil (Megan Fox), Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) and hockey stick wielding newcomer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), spring into action to prevent—what else?—the end of the world as we know it.
Ladled into this turtle soup of action, comedy and crazy science—“Inside every human there is a gene that connects us to our animal ancestors!”—are good messages of T’N’T—tolerance ‘n teamwork—but despite the explosive nature of the movie there are no real fireworks here. Maybe it’s because our eyes are so accustomed to CGI spectacle. Turtles can literally fly, but who cares? In a film where anything is possible, nothing is terribly exciting. The computer-generated images bring the turtles, rhinos and warthogs to vivid life but the artificial nature of the main characters do nothing to breathe life into this story.
I’m not saying I expect anything approaching realism in a movie about talking turtles. I’m suggesting that the quirky appeal of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello isn’t well suited by CGI that looks interchangeable with every other superhero flick. It’s as if the very things that made the turtles unique—there’s only one “Cowabunga!” in the whole film and it isn’t even Michelangelo who says it—have been downplayed in the hopes of turning them into generic, franchise building heroes. I say let their freak flags fly. We liked them because they were subversive. We liked them because, like Godzilla, they were more fun when you could see the zipper on the back of their rubber suits. Smoothing out their edges sands off the stuff that made them unique.
Kraang, the sadly underused villain, is as over-the-top as you might hope and a nice counterpart to the bland Tee as Shredder. As cool as Kraang is, though, this is really the turtle show. They are given more screen time than anyone else, and other than Bebop and Rocksteady, who morph into a rhino and warthog, dominate the proceedings. In the background are Laura Linney and Perry. Linney steps out of the art-house to do a forgettable turn as a justice department honcho and Perry adds little to the flick other than name value.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows” is a CGI orgy that left me (half) shell shocked and nostalgic for a time when four wisecracking, world-saving turtles were something unique and not simply another entry in the superhero sweepstakes.