I’ve been a loud defender of the Michael Bay production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since it first oozed into theaters two years ago. I went as far as to call the film “The Best Bad Movie of 2014” & “the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell”. High praise, I know. My point was that it’s the exact kind of campy cheese that in its own trashy way reveals & documents more about the blockbuster filmmaking landscape than a more prestigious property possibly could. It’s most useful in this world was as a perfect encapsulation of our worst cinematic tendencies, a cultural relic for future generations of schlock-hungry fools.
That trashy time capsule’s follow-up, a sequel titled Out of the Shadows, is just as enjoyable as the first Ninja Turtles film, but for an entirely different reason. Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme like its hilariously hideous predecessor, Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a snapshot on where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it does or doesn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.
I wasn’t quite so sure about Out of the Shadows during its early plot machinations. Early scenes of Megan Fox’s April O’Neil working “undercover” as a nerd (a hot nerd, as the leering camera insistently reminds you) and the titular turtles airlessly navigating a CGI cityscape are a cruel, dull bore. My enthusiasm picked up fairly quickly, however, thanks to the aforementioned pizza van/garbage truck. You see, this isn’t just a recreation pizza-shooting toy from my own youth; it’s one that adds the ludicrous appendages of mechanical arms that operate cartoonishly oversized nunchucks. Why? Why not. The film’s plot gets kicked into action by a highspeed prison break (complete with producer Michael Bay’s calling card excess of explosions) that frees the wicked Shredder from the temporary shackles he’s locked in at the end of the last film. A teleportation device places Shredder in the mechanical hands of the evil alien brain Krang, who opens up a world of purple ooze (you can’t get much more 90s than ooze, right?), interdimensional portals, alien warships, and all kinds of other high-concept wankery. The goal of these conflicts is, of course, to provide simple obstacles for the turtles to overcome, but I have great respect for the over-the-top, Saturday morning cartoon choices the film makes to set those targets up. It’s certainly a refreshing change from the too-dark-for-its-own-good villainy brought to the screen by William Fichtner in the first film, as amusing as that was to watch.
While we’re talking Krang, I’ll just go ahead & say he’s very close to being the greatest villain I’ve seen onscreen all year (the slight advantage goes to the much more naturalistic presence of Black Phillip there). An unholy combination of Yoda, Audrey II, and the oversexed gator from All Dogs Go to Heaven, Krang’s vocal performance is perfectly pitched in its over-the-top scenery chewing. He’s not alone. Tyler Perry’s signature yuck-em-up hokeyness is put to brilliant use as a low level villain mad scientist that’s less Dr. Frankenstein & more Neil deGrasse Tyson meets The Nutty Professor. Will Arnett returns to his role as the scaredy cat cad of the previous film, but is allowed far more breathing room to ramp up the pomposity. One of my favorite gags in Out of the Shadows is a scene where Arnett’s bagging his own breath in ziplocks to sell to schmucks impressed by his newfound celebrity as the turtles’ wing man. Pro wrestler Sheamus is perfectly cast here in his own corny way & probably could live out the rest of his life playing bit parts in kids’ movies without breaking a sweat. Tony Schaloub is still a hideous CGI sewer rat father figure. Megan Fox is still a hopelessly bland non-presence, but I began to find amusement in the way she constantly posed & mugged for the camera for absolutely no reason at all. Oh yeah, and Dennis “The Dummy” Duffy from 30 Rock drops by just because. These aren’t performances that are going to win any awards, but they are perfectly suited for kids’ media goofery. Actually, Laura Linney’s performance as a besides-herself police chief might be worthy of an award in a more serious film, but she’s always perfect so there’s no real surprise there.
I don’t want to oversell the shift in tones here. This is still the bloated, grotesque CGI spectacle people understandably pinched their noses at two years ago. As much as I enjoyed every bizarrely lovable second of Krang content in Out of the Shadows, he’s still a disgusting, digital depiction of a sentient brain literally mashed inside a giant, clunky robot. It’s gross. But, hey, kids love gross shit. The film makes a conscious effort to move away from the Dark Knight grit of its predecessor to take delight in such cheap, silly pleasures as watching a two ton warthog eat a trash barrel’s worth of spaghetti while his hairy CGI nipples jiggle. I got the same feeling watching Out of the Shadows as I did with last year’s excellent Goosebumps adaptation: kids are going to grow up loving it & that’s all that really matters. I’ll even go as far as to say that the film finds genuine pathos in unexpected places, namely the teen turtles’ anxiety over the way society treats them not as the good guys, but as hideous, mutant monsters (a feeling all teens share at some point, right?). I especially like the way the turtles describe themselves as “four brothers from New York who hate bullies & love this city.” It gives them a real Steve Rogers or Judy Hopps vibe I can genuinely get behind. That’s not what makes this film such a deliciously fun exercise in trash cinema delirium (that’d be Krang), but it was yet another admirable aspect of a remarkably silly, deeply ugly children’s film I had no business enjoying nearly as much as I did.