Late in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, one of our heroes tells another to simply accept the insanity around them and “just roll with it.” By the way this sequel turned out, it’s easy to see how that mantra might have guided the film’s development from the very start. After all, the 2014 franchise reboot divided fans of the heroes in a half-shell by making some radical changes to the mythology, earning unfavorable comparisons to producer Michael Bay’s Transformers films. Considering that Megan Fox assumes the role of April O’Neil and the climactic battle involves a very robotic-looking Shredder, the film’s critics certainly were at least somewhat justified in their collective response.
However, where that first film truly falters is in its understanding of what fans expect when they decide to go see a film about four man-sized reptiles with martial arts skills. In addition to a muddled, cliché-ridden plot, it tried in vain to legitimize the turtles’ origin story, tying in an entire backstory involving April’s scientist father and his villainous business associate.
Yet, what has always made TMNT such a fan-favorite franchise is its devil-may-care spirit. So this is perhaps one franchise that actually benefits from some liberal loosening of the reins. By their very nature, the characters and events of this world are unabashedly over-the-top and ridiculous anyway, and much to the great delight of longtime fans, Out of the Shadows is perhaps the first film in the series to truly embrace that aspect of its storytelling.
Set roughly a year after the turtles’ first confrontation with Shredder (Brian Tee), the film finds our heroes in their enemy’s crosshairs once more when Shredder launches a sinister plot with otherworldly implications. The emergence of new foes Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (WWE star Sheamus) – making their live-action debut here after being scrapped from previous films – only complicates the turtles’ mission, as does the arrival of hockey stick-wielding vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). Oh, and let’s not forget the long-awaited introduction of Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) into the mix as well.
If all those new characters (plus retooled versions of some existing ones) make Out of the Shadows sound overstuffed, that’s because it sort of is. As a result, Amell never truly gels with the rest of the cast, and Bebop and Rocksteady – although their design and personalities remain true to the classic animated series – are still about as one-note as henchman characters can get. Toss in a wholly unnecessary subplot that wrangles Will Arnett back for another go-round, and the resulting narrative often forces an overwhelming concentration of plot into regular exposition dump scenes that essentially spell out the objective or significance behind each new development.
That being said, Out of the Shadows keeps such a strong momentum going and has a blast incorporating so much fan service into a single film. The turtles exhibit their distinct personalities far more clearly than in the last film, proving to be just as quippy as a certain friendly neighborhood Marvel hero, and even Fox is a better fit this time around. Moreover, the action scenes carry the same high-energy charm that has attracted generations of young viewers to TMNT in its many forms. At its most basic, the franchise functions as pure mindless escapism, allowing viewers to imagine what life as a crime-fighting, pizza-eating reptile would be like, and Out of the Shadows finally puts the audience into that world of endless possibilities.
Between the introduction of Krang and Tyler Perry’s supporting turn as mad scientist Baxter Stockman (in a particularly hammy performance), enough ground has been laid for the next couple of films at least. It does feel as if the franchise has been liberated for the very first time to pursue any and all elements of the mythology. It then seems fitting that Out of the Shadows — serving too as a soft reboot of the previous film — would be the installment to lead the series into such increasingly kooky territory.
Fans of the original animated series and the 1990s films will especially enjoy all the nods to TMNT history here, including the classic theme song and certain thematic similarities to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. For years, fans have been hoping that the TMNT films would incorporate classic elements of the beloved show that transformed the comic book characters into a global phenomenon. Now that it’s happened with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, moviegoers who have a long-standing history with the turtles should be very pleased with the result.
Even though Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows may not inspire many new adult fans into the turtles' world, it delivers a vastly improved follow-up to the 2014 reboot and a fun sci-fi action/adventure in its own right.