TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS

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Contrary to the beliefs of the several who read the dissertations-disguised-as-movie-reviews that I post on this site, my younger days didn’t solely consist of repeated viewings of the Back to the Future trilogy and Ghostbusters.  My plate of nostalgia will always have a section reserved for the franchise known as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or more specifically, the first two films in the original film series and the cartoon that spawned a cavalcade of merchandise we as children simply had to own.

Based on an acclaimed comic book by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles revolved around Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, four reptilian brothers who, after coming into contact with a mysterious radioactive substance, are transformed into anthropomorphic, wisecracking, martial arts experts who serve as pseudo-superheroes on the streets of New York City under the tutelage of their similarly transformed master, a wizened rat sensei named Splinter.  Sporting wildly different personalities & joined by their human sidekick Casey Jones, a streetwise vigilante, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles usually saw the titular characters up against one of the most unique rogues’ galleries ever seen, with characters including the all-powerful Shredder, arguably one of pop culture’s greatest, and most notorious, adversaries.

When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made the move to children’s television in the late 1980s, the transition resulted in the introduction of another partner in April O’Neil, a TV reporter, along with a heavy emphasis being placed on jokes, light-hearted action and a wide variety of colorful villains.  This lineup encompassed other mutants like Bebop & Rocksteady and the incendiary, dimension-hopping Krang, all of which directly contributed to massive sales of toys, video games and apparel so as to ensure immense popularity amongst your grade school companions.  In 1990 a live-action film adaptation was released, which while still maintaining a wealth of comedy and the same personas one had grown accustomed to in the foursome, contained much more of a focus on the darker aspects of the comic by presenting a grittier version of New York City, intense fight scenes, the inclusion of just one baddie (Shredder) and some of the finest costume & voiceover work courtesy of the late Jim Henson.  Without question, the film stands as one of the best comic book films in existence, and a great time overall.

A year later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze arrived in theaters and, although it still sported the same excellent Turtles outfits as its predecessor & the same chemistry between the team members we’d grown to known & love, was undoubtedly even more influenced by the cartoon, which by this point had become a bonafide cultural phenomenon.  The action was slightly more comical, the wisecracks plentiful, and for the first time the Turtles now faced off against two beasts of equal size & strength who, strangely, were not Bebop & Rocksteady.  While admittedly not quite at the same level as the original, The Secret of the Ooze is still an enjoyable experience, with a return from Shredder and a memorable appearance by Vanilla Ice rounding out the list of positive attributes.  For those that have not seen the latter, watch and be astounded.

Unfortunately, it would be another two years before the Turtles would grace the silver screen once more, and this time around the quality took a steep dive.  1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 saw our beloved Turtles now having been transported centuries into the past to ancient Japan, where the fight scenes, dialogue and premise as a whole aimlessly creeps by like the eponymous creatures from which the series gets its title.  Derided a failure, the disaster of the third film all but ensured that it would be some time before the Turtles returned, this time in the form of another small screen cartoon years later.  Fortunately, another theatrical jaunt wasn’t far off, and in 2007 the franchise made a valiant attempt in TMNT, done entirely in CG.  Thanks to decent reviews & box office returns, the success of TMNT painted an optimistic picture for the future-would further adventures involving the Turtles make their way to theaters before long?

Rumors soon began to spread about another live-action entry, all of which were eventually proven true in a somewhat bittersweet fashion-yes, the Turtles were back, only this time the newest film would be produced by Hollywood schlockmeister Michael Bay, best known for having directed roughly every substance-less action movie of the past two decades.  Coming off of several hit films that brought the existing Transformers franchise back to moviegoing audiences worldwide, Bay was widely considered a disappointing choice to spearhead a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, and under the direction of Jonathan Liebesman (2011’s Battle: Los Angeles, 2012’s Wrath of the Titans), 2014 at long last brought audiences the reboot they weren’t sure they wanted, which as expected was largely viewed as a complete fail.  Shedding the practical suits as seen in the first trilogy and now relying on motion capture to bring the Turtles to life, the film made the mistake of casting Transformers alum/mediocre actress Megan Fox as April O’Neil, in addition to a plot that changed the origins of the Turtles.  A puzzling script by Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec packed with eye-rolling humor, unnecessarily over-the-top action sequences, confusion over what to do with Shredder and the ugly depictions of the Turtles themselves added to the mess as well.  Although a score by the promising Brian Tyler moved the action along and the Turtles again retained the differences that made them so endearing years ago, 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had one final saving grace-a so-so performance at the box office and middling reviews so as to essentially guarantee no further sequels.

Much to the surprise of many, the 2014 film did just well enough to warrant production on a follow-up, with Bay again producing, Applebaum & Nemec returning to write the screenplay and Dave Green (2013’s Earth to Echo) now in the director’s chair, replacing Liebesman.  Much of the original cast would be back as well, which not only included Will Arnett as April O’Neil cameraman Vern Fenwick but which now also featured Tyler Perry as comic/cartoon carryover Baxter Stockman, Stephen Amell as Casey Jones, Gary Anthony Williams as Bebop, Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly as Rocksteady and Laura Linney as Rebecca Vincent, a new police chief character meant to add the obligatory amount of law enforcement necessary for any Turtles film.

The plot is simple-Shredder escapes from prison with assistance from Stockman and unites with fellow escapees/eventual henchmen Bebop & Rocksteady to assemble a device that can bring the interdimensional warlord Krang-yes, that Krang-to Earth for nefarious purposes.  Would you believe it’s up to the Turtles to stop him?  Would you believe Megan Fox still doesn’t know how to deliver her lines properly?  Would you believe I’ve already rambled far too much about a children’s franchise?

Fans of subplots will feel right at home watching Out of the Shadows, with a lengthy side storyline involving the Turtles dealing with some inter-group turmoil along with the struggle of being confined to vigilante darkness and possibly being given the opportunity to become human.  In doing so, they could finally emerge…out of the shadows…you know, like the title.

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Out of the Shadows is, without a doubt, undeniably fun and a perfect representation of a movie one never has to think about for a second. The personalities of the four Turtles once more complement each other well, and the motion capture has seen a drastic improvement over that seen in less-than-convincing fashion two years ago. Bebop & Rocksteady especially look great, not only in appearance but in how the actors play the parts-to finally see these two franchise icons in all their live-action glory feels quite good. Plus, it’s nice to see the transformations of the two into their animal personas taken almost directly from the first episode of the classic cartoon.

Overall, Out of the Shadows feels far more like the cartoon than The Secret of the Ooze, which isn’t a deterrent by any means. Krang’s big screen debut is handled well, with appropriate voice acting by Brad Garrett and satisfactory special effects, and Will Arnett again plays an extension of himself in Vern Fenwick-never a bad thing. Steve Jablonsky handles soundtrack duties this time around, with his well-orchestrated score anthemic, dark and Hans Zimmer-esque throughout. And, although Johnny Knoxville may not have returned to voice Leonardo, he’s hardly missed, especially with the wonderful Tony Shalhoub back as Splinter. I also can’t argue with the action-when the Turtles battle Bebop & Rocksteady for the first time, a part of me felt like cheering, and that is not a lie.

While the film marks a drastic improvement over the original in many ways, it still suffers from countless issues, a number of which have carried over from the first, still unresolved and doing nothing to raise the quality of Out of the Shadows in any way. Brian Tee as Shredder is simply terrible, with a performance barely qualifying for a walkaround version of the Turtles’ enemy at Universal Studios, and Stephen Amell as Casey Jones is no Elias Koteas-although his starring role on the acclaimed CW series Arrow may be a good fit for this capable actor, a role like Jones most definitely is not, with his few good moments outnumbered by the times when he awkwardly swings his hockey stick weapon cache while uttering dialogue he presumably just read for the first time five seconds earlier. Tyler Perry’s Baxter Stockman teeters the line between cartoonish mania and direct-to-video sloppiness, which honestly does work from time to time, but when Laura Linney enters the scene as a police chief who by golly means business, scenery is chewed up faster than the white marbles in a rummage sale copy of Hungry Hungry Hippos. No doubt, this performance is right up there with her role in 1995’s Congo. And who could forget Congo?

  “I love  Congo . “ -Amy the gorilla, star of  Congo

 “I love Congo. “ -Amy the gorilla, star of Congo

But Megan Fox…clearly, that 2015 Razzie nomination for her prior depiction of April O’Neil did nothing to motivate this irritating actress to, say, understand her craft better.  Everything about her presence in the film, from the way she speaks to her reactions to anything happening around her to the way she even carries her walk cycle…there is not a thing about Megan Fox that benefits the character at all.  Judith Hoag, who played O’Neil in the 1990 adaptation and even filmed a deleted cameo for Out of the Shadows, is probably not pleased.  Or, maybe she is.  I don’t know Judith Hoag.

 Currently starring on ABC’s  Nashville , which has been cancelled.

Currently starring on ABC’s Nashville, which has been cancelled.

On a personal note, why is it that Fox, of all characters, gets the movie’s one-and-only opportunity to utter the Turtles’ most famous phrase, “Cowabunga”?  Plus, we also never get a good look at Dimension X, Krang’s fictional home.  Neither of these things delighted me whatsoever.

 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is currently not enjoying box office success, however critics seem to agree that it’s a flawed, yet improved step up from the original.  Obviously, I couldn’t agree more-the film is worth one viewing, and might even qualify for a second if you have no other options and your VHS copy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Their Shells Tour is experiencing extreme tracking issues.  It’s entertaining, with the non-human characters noticeably better than the human cast members, an exciting score and a wealth of problems that should guarantee a third film is completely unnecessary.

Yet, I must remind myself that these films that attempt to continue a story from when I was a child, be it in the form of a sequel or remake, are extensions of a simpler, innocent time when these characters truly were larger than life and represented a world I loved escaping to on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seamlessly falls into this category and will forever remain a franchise I’ll hope one day reclaims the quality of its early ‘90s predecessors.

At least the soundtrack includes this.