Saturday, June 4, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of the Shadows (2016) Review

This is why I love garbage trucks.  Well, one reason.

The underlying message of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is embrace the unique and be yourself.  It's about as original as mozzarella and tomato sauce on pizza, and a lot of media have sent it better, but given how the film lives up, it couldn't be more poignant--and in fact, it's an axiom Platinum Dooms should have already been observing two years ago.

You may recall my gripes with 2014's movie, that it seemed perpetually afraid of the brand's premise; focusing far too much on humans providing exposition dialogue and reinventing the Foot Clan as generic Western thugs with ski-masks and assault rifles.  Though far from the worst movie Platinum Dunes has made, it was glaringly a Platinum Dunes movie at the expense of being a Ninja Turtles movie.  Come this sequel, though, that's changed dramatically; certainly, some of the standard Bay-isms are still here, like constant wreckage, fetish-fuel and wide-angle shots of the sky, but the mutant lion's share of the screentime goes to scores of the brand's famous outlandish traditions.  In addition to the obvious return of the Turtles and Foot Clan, Pizza, Casey Jones, Baxter Stockman, Bebop, Rocksteady, Krang, a hotrodded garbage truck, the classic theme song and even (in a small sense) Vanilla Ice are all here to massage the sweet-spots of nostalgic fans.

At least some of them.  Time to address that mutant elephant in the room; for anyone who doesn't know, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began in 1984 as an independent pictorial panel book--laypersons would (incorrectly) refer to it as a "comic"--by Mirage Studios, and it was a surprise hit by independent pictorial panel book standards, so it became an ongoing serial, and by 1987 it was successful enough to license a toyline, with an animated series produced by Fred Wolf to promote it, but because of censorship and probably some "creative differences", the cartoon ended up drastically different from the book.  Still, it was an even bigger hit, to the point it outshined the original book in the public mentality, and ever since then, TMNT fandom has been haunted by cockfights over which iteration ought to be seen as the true essence of the brand.  This film has gone for the path of least resistance and focused mostly on things from the Fred Wolf cartoon, but there are certainly some neat nods to the original Mirage books too, and they're the sort that could pave the way to more influence in future films.

Having all these callbacks to the brand's heyday gives the movie the downside of being extraordinarily busy and frenetic, and inevitably, some elements work better than others.  The titular Turtles are onscreen much more and packing a cool truck that recalls the vehicles in the 2003 cartoon, and fellow mutants Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) are constantly there to fight them, yielding much delight.  The rest of the Foot Clan have been corrected from gangsters back to ninjas, and even Karai gets a fight scene in this time.  On the other hand, the brand's flagship human vigilante Casey Jones, who is also onscreen a lot, is played passionately but inappropriately by Arrow star Stephen Amell.  While people often denigrate Megan Fox as an unremarkable one-note actress, as it happens that one note isn't far off from the Fred Wolf incarnation of her character April Oneal, which is obviously the version this filmverse channels.  By contrast, Amell is charming and witty, but incredibly dissimilar to any past version of Casey Jones, and only sells the role for as long as he puts on his mask and beats on foes with his hockey gear.  That could have been any number of athletic male leads, but they went with shipping a famous attractive man with their famous attractive woman, and unfortunately, Amell spends too much time just being the dreamboat.  Tyler Perry brings a spot-on tone to the iconic mad scientist Baxter Stockman, but they didn't capitalize by giving him many funny lines.  Then there's the fussy and smart-Alecy alien wardlord Krang, delighting every moment he's onscreen, which are tragically few.

However, even if some elements of this film are underwhelming, they're never boring, which again, is a huge change for its 2014 predecessor.  While most jokes aren't worth roaring with laughter over, they still work much better in their context than the trailers suggested.  The film's energetic and playful mindset is infectious, frequently soliciting at least grins and giggles, and in the sad event that it drops the ball, it picks the ball right back up and charges into new territory too fast to stay resentful at it.  Visually, it brings in ample toyetic frills in the best sense; though textbook Platinum Dunes in terms of its appetite for action, they did well making that a action a good combination of graceful and zany.  The 2014 film's tired out instances of men in black clothes shooting automatic weapons amidst steel and concrete have given way to such gleeful sights as a rhinoceros driving a tank through white-water rapids, and as to the Turtles' lair and truck, the only possible criticism of them is they don't get enough screentime.

To say Platinum Dunes outdid themselves here would be rather vague praise given their stereotypical pedigree, so I'll go further and say that in some ways, they even outdid every other filmmaker that has made a Ninja Turtles film.  In some ways; not in every way.  The film's quasi-Lovecraftian scenario of competing against villains to recover macguffins to summon a higher power is neither original nor exceptionally developed, its message is wholesome-but-thin, and its revivals of series icons usually don't appeal quite as much as the original iterations that made them so lovable in the first place.  Yet quantity can have a quality of its own, and from the opening where ninja-stars replace the standard stars on the Paramount logo, to the end credits wherein a very faithful cover of the Fred Wolf theme song plays, this film has by far the highest quantity of loving tributes to the brand.  It's certainly not the only way to make a movie, and probably not the best way, but coming from Platinum Dunes, this is the way to make a movie that feels long, long overdue.  A for effort.