Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows has a TV spot that says it has "everything fans want." It lists off individual bits from the film, like Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, the humor, the catchphrases, Casey Jones - and it's right. The ad is telling you the truth: there is a ton in here that longtime (or even young, new) fans of the Turtles will love. What the ad doesn't tell you is that something is missing; some connective tissue to bring all this together just never quite shows up. While it's fun, and there are great, exciting moments for fans, it also doesn't feel like it ever figures things out entirely - what does it want to be other than a TMNT movie?
Out of the Shadows, at its core, is largely an homage to the first second movie in the TMNT franchise. This movie has a lot of the same basic elements that Secret of the Ooze did, including a secret ooze that's used to bring two new villainous mutants to life, the surprising return of the Shredder (more on him in a bit), and even a little wink and a nod to Vanilla Ice. That's about where the similarities end, though, as Shadows brings a lot more to the party, including more humor than has probably ever been seen in a Turtles movie, and an increased focus on the family dynamic of the team.
Those elements are the easiest to flat-out love about Shadows; they've captured the family dynamic better than any film take has before (the CG-animated TMNT did a pretty good job with Raphael and Leonardo's rivalry, but this eclipses even that), even dragging the other brothers into the typical Raph vs Leo fight. The Turtles act more like brothers in this movie than ever before; anyone with actual brothers will recognize the way they razz each other, cheer each other on, then want nothing more than to punch the others in the face all in the span of about 15 seconds. There's a new vulnerability to these characters that has rarely, if ever been tapped in any of their many media they've tackled, and it's something I hope is explored further in future movies. The humor aspect of this film helps that along considerably, as well - there are moments in this movie that are flat out funny, drawing laughs from young and old throughout the theater. That largely includes Bebop and Rocksteady, who, as played by Stephen Farrelly (aka Sheamus in the WWE) and Gary Anthony Williams, are certain to be the favorite characters of 12 year-olds around the world for the next year or two, minimum.
Shadows also gets the action largely right. There's a difficulty here in using a bit too much CGI; when other films are using such a huge mix of CGI and practical fighting, a fight between five all-CGI characters in a CGI environment in the climax of a live-action movie can be a bit jarring. It's why the best action scene in the movie is easily the fight between Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) and Rocksteady and Bebop. Amell personally performed all but one stunt in the movie, and was playing against practical effects, along with people in Mocap suits, and it made a huge difference. There was something much more visceral and dangerous about his scenes compared to the Turtles just fighting their CGI-threat-of-the-moment, even though the Turtles were all mocapped as well. I'm not sure exactly how to fix this issue, but it's an issue none-the-less. Still, even with that sense of disjointedness, the action is fun. When there are personal moments like those given to Raphael and Michelangelo in the midst of the action, it really sells it, and makes it convincing fun again.
The biggest failure here, though, was in some of the individual character use. As much extra real character development they gave to the Turtles, and to Casey Jones, and even a bit to April and the new villains, there were characters like Shredder and Karai that were just criminally underused and underdeveloped. Why cast such great actors as Brian Tee and Brittany Ishibashi if you're not going to let them do anything? Yes, Shredder has one pivotal moment in the film, but he goes out of the story like a punk, and it's really disappointing. It can't be easy trying to juggle five major villains, but then, that's the choice that was made. Hopefully we'll see Tee's Shredder back in a big way. One exception to this rule is Tyler Perry's Baxter Stockman, who steals (and chews) every second of every scene he's in. Tyler Perry is just hilarious as Stockman. Here's hoping for a bit of a transformation for him in the future.
It feels like a lot of Out of the Shadows was looking at the first movie with this creative team and cast and going, "what can we improve on right away?" If that's the primary goal of a sequel, it's hard to go too wrong, and they really don't. If you liked the first, you'll like this one even more. If you were unsure about the first, this one will make things a bit better for you, but won't assuage all your worries. If you have an 8-12 year-old to take to this movie, their sheer, unadulterated (pun intended) enjoyment of the movie will probably make you like it more, too. If you're just a fan of the classic late 80s/early 90s versions of the TMNT, there's a ton in here to enjoy, even if the puzzle pieces never quite fit together. TMNT: Out of the Shadows has a lot for young and old fans to love, and is a great step forward for the franchise.
Rating: 3 out of 5