As far as Michael Bay blockbusters (blockBaysters if you will) go, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is the least repugnant.
That sounds like damning with faint praise and it largely is. The blockBayster (I’m using it now, deal with it) is a style that does maintain a tight kung-fu grip even when he’s just producing. It’s usually visually hideous, narratively disastrous, and somewhere along the spectrum of accidentally to actively immoral and/or stupid.
So while TMNT 2 (I’m not typing out that whole motherfucker of a name every time) may definitely be holding to those first two, it feels like for the first time we have a blockBayster that’s actually trying to not be an active waking nightmare and, in the film’s adherence to the Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, actually ends up being somewhere along the spectrum of fun.
Not good. Fun.
TMNT 2 doesn’t really need me to tell you the story. I mean, I’m going to. You can skip this next paragraph if you want.
Our four Turtles, Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), fight crime as ninjas in the shadows under the guidance of their master Splinter (Tony Shaloub). Shredder (Brian Tee) escapes from jail with the help of Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) and along the way gets taken up by the evil alien overlord Krang (Brad Garrett) who wants to destroy the world with the help of a portal device. Also April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) and Will Arnett (he has another name, but like…yeah) have some stuff to do because otherwise they’re not allowed to call this a live-action film.
Sound like nonsense? Good, because it is total nonsense. Director Dave Green was clearly not brought in for his tight control of narrative because this film is narrative horseshit. At no point does any character motivation connect to the forward motion of the plot. At no point am I entirely clear what the evil plan is and why anyone wants to carry it out. At no point am I entirely clear what the current point of the action on screen is. The film seems to forget and to remember basic character points at various intervals. It doesn’t come up that April O’Neil is a television reporter until the end of the movie.
Also, this is the THIRD studio film I’ve seen in a row where the final narrative stakes were the end of the world. Guys. Fucking seriously. Can we have something else? It’s okay for narrative stakes to be personal or small or something like that. I don’t need everymotherfuckingmovie to be about them trying to stop world destruction. It makes your villains way less interesting.
This isn’t even getting into the weirdest narrative problem, which is that the film is literally forced to split in two along lines of CG characters and non-CG characters and sets. It leaves any chance the film had at narrative competency or thematic unity in the dust.
I can’t say it’s a good film. The storytelling problems are so overwhelming that I can’t imagine I’ll remember exactly what happened in this film…tomorrow.
Plus, it’s still afflicted with that Michael Bay aesthetic where every design decision seems to be based on whatever you can jam together to look cool. I mean, they’re faithful designs. But faithful does not necessarily translate to good when it comes to live action. The Turtles are still occasionally off-putting, though much less so than the last film, and Bebop and Rocksteady can’t help but look pasted into this movie.
Despite all that though, I can’t say I hated this movie. It tried. It tried to hit every single button I had that would make me dislike it. But it didn’t succeed there.
Much of the admiration that I feel for this film is due to the fact that it’s a major action blockbuster starring kid-friendly characters that actually feels like I can take a kid to watch it. A few swear words and an ogling Megan Fox montage notwithstanding, it’s actually pretty positive and light-hearted and goofy. As opposed to the apocalyptic terror of Batman v Superman or the mind-numbing boredom of Alice Through the Looking Glass, TMNT 2 can actually be enjoyed by a child on its own terms, and not just as part of what the parent wanted to see.
That’s the biggest thing about this film. It actually feels like the Saturday morning cartoons it’s based on. It’s delightful even if it’s messy, and it’s goofy even if it’s stupid. There’s a sense of glee and joy in getting to watch this even if it doesn’t make an ounce of sense. Like you’re watching it with a big ol’ bowl of the sugariest cereal you own. I half expected a toy commercial to burst in, and I mean that positively.
It even actually feels pretty cool at points. The action scenes are pointless mostly, but they do the job of hitting the thrill-seeking button. They’re generally easy enough to follow and they make solid use of the different Turtle ideas and styles. They’re enjoyable, though again not technically great, just like the action in your average Saturday morning cartoon.
That cartoon feel even holds into the performances. No one is doing Oscar work here. But everyone gets this is a cartoon, and the actors are having fun with it. They’re being charming and goofy and charismatic even if they don’t have much to hook into. Stephen Amell’s Casey Jones is really just a good old-fashioned hero that you don’t get to see in these sort of blockbusters all too often, and Tyler Perry’s Baxter Stockman legitimately is doing one of the better bits of scene-eating I’ve ever seen. I needed more Tyler Perry, actually.
What’s important about all that is that it’s not trying to appease the audience that grew up with it in a measurable way, by giving them the weight that they always imagined the cartoon had growing up like the first one tried to. It’s throwing the older audience a few references, but nothing that would fly over the heads of the rest.
The movie is honest-to-god actually just trying to be something for a new generation. We have a movie based on a kid’s cartoon that’s actually for kids, and if the parents have some fun while they’re there, then good for them.
TMNT 2 is not good. But it is fun, it is goofy, and it actually feels like something I want to show a kid as their first blockbuster. This year, I’ve had much worse.