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Non-Review Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Out of the Shadows

There is something extraordinarily cynical about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.

The issue is not that movie refuses to make sense. The issue is not that its characters are (at best) archetypes and (at worst) plot functions. The issue is not that the script is at once thin on detail and heavy on exposition. The issue is not that the direction is clunky and unfocused, lacking basic technique and cluttering up would should be fairly standard set pieces. The issue is not even that the computer-generated imagery is ropey in places, with a lot of detail on the four turtles but great difficulty bringing Splinter to life.

I like Mike.

I like Mike.

The issue is that the move is completely unapologetic about any of these issues. It is not that the movie abandons plot logic to focus on character dynamics, or that it ignores character development in order to get to impressive set pieces. The clunky expository dialogue is not countered by witty banter or knowing irony. There is a sense that Out of the Shadows is a film comfortable with its own shoddiness. It isn’t that the film tries and fails, it is that the film barely tries at all. There is a leaden and lifeless quality to it all.

The issue is not that Out of the Shadows is a stupid dumb action movie, because stupid dumb action movies can be great fun on their own merits. The issues is that Out of the Shadows assumes that its audience is just as dumb as it is.

Turtle power.

Turtle power.

To be fair, nostalgia is a potent force. The recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot exists within the same framework of nostalgia that explains films like Independence Day: Resurgence or Jurassic World, a conscious throwback to nineties pop culture that included a string of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films and a popular (and toyetic) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series. Children who were young enough to watch those shows the first time around are now old enough to take their own kids to a familiar branded film franchise.

Nostalgia tends to cloud judgment, making it hard to properly assess the relative worth of something that had been an essential part of a person’s childhood. Many people, this reviewer included, have fond memories of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because the show was everywhere and it had a goofy enough premise to keep a hyperactive eight-year-old reasonably engaged. At the same time, even through the lens of nostalgia, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand was hardly reliable.

There's a metaphor in here somewhere.

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere.

The movies were notoriously cheap and ridiculous. Indeed, they were surprisingly leaden for a series of films built around those four somewhat incongruous words thrown together. Nothing seemed to happen. The jokes were tired. Characters were introduced solely to sell toys. The four central characters had personalities that feel like they were lifted straight out of a pitch meeting and sutured straight into a catchy wrap song. Sure, one will lead the team, but can we have another that does machines? What if one’s cool but rude? Now all we need is party dude.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon never had the depth or nuance of Batman: The Animated Series. The films lacked the heart of other family-favourite classics The Goonies or E.T. All the series had was a ridiculous concept, which was enough to sustain decades of merchandising and franchising. So, with all of that in mind, it makes a great deal of sense that Out of the Shadows should feel so stale and lifeless. Strip away the nostalgia and the childhood affection, and it was never as if Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a worldbeater.

"What gives you the right? What's the difference between you and me?" "I'm not wearing hockey pads!"

“What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”
“I’m not wearing hockey pads!”

After all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as a joke. In fact, the entire premise of the series was a punchline built around the question of what happened to the radioactive canister that gave Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil) his super senses. The series was in large part an affectionate riff on Frank Miller’s ninja-centric reinvention of Daredevil during the eighties, a joke that the IDW’s 2012 comic series has maintained through variant covers that cheekily homage some of Frank Miller’s most iconic Daredevil covers.

If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles largely originated as a joke riffing on other superhero properties, then it makes sense that Out of the Shadows should be so cynically built from the repurposed elements of other more successful franchises. The score shift between a variety of influences, from Hans Zimmer’s superhero scores to Alan Silvestri’s themes to the more recent work of Tom Holkenborg on Mad Max: Fury Road. However, there are other more blatant lifts and nods.

Out Foxed.

Out Foxed.

In keeping with its design from the source material, Kraag’s “Technodrome” is rather consciously modeled on the Death Star. It appears the stock in large spherical doomsday weapons only went up after the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The climax of the film finds a giant hole opening in the sky above Manhattan through which an alien invasion pours, although the budget restrictions never allow the film to compete with The Avengers. A prison convoy intercept suggests somebody watched The Dark Knight recently.

Even the characters themselves populate the film with nods and references. “Say hello to my little friend!” Michaelangelo taunts at one point. Later, he quips, “You talkin’ to me?” As laudable as Mikey’s taste in films might be, it seems like an odd frame of reference for a family film. Sure, kids these days are perfectly capable of watching Scarface or Taxi Driver, but it seems strange to assume the target market overlaps. To be fair, Raphael later asks himself “what would Vin Diesel do?”, which seems a lot more relevant to the film’s target demographic.

"You guys liked The Avengers, right?"

“You guys liked The Avengers, right?”

It frequently seems like Out of the Shadows is not entirely sure of its target audience. The simple plot, heavy (and oft-repeated) exposition and lack of internal logic suggests the film has little faith in its audience’s intelligence, akin to other child-focused CGI animation like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. At the same time, Mikey’s references to Scarface and Taxi Driver, not to mention a super creepy scene of Megan Fox changing outfits in Grand Central Station to dress as a sexy schoolgirl, suggest a teenage target demographic.

There is a very dreary quality to the whole affair. The characters in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles do not have arcs as much as they have “settings”, the plot does not unfold as much as it lurches, the action is not compelling so much as it feels compelled. The movie’s action set pieces are spaced unevenly across the movie’s two-hour runtime, and have a lifeless quality to them. Director David Green has great difficulty with his editing and choreography, particularly as it relates to his computer-generated characters. The action feels muddy and unclear, difficult to follow.

The Wrath of Raph...

The Wrath of Raph…

The script is a disaster. Characters are introduced and dropped with little or no context. To pick a single example, the film fails to pick a primary antagonist. Although playing a crucial role at the climax, Kraag appears out of nowhere for only a single scene before the movie’s final twenty minutes. There is no context and backstory revealed for the character, who is essentially a giant brain in a robotic body. Is Kraag operating on behalf of an alien species? Does he operate alone? Is the vanguard of an invasion? Is he the only living thing in his invasion fleet?

Kraag seems to appear in the film simply because the character is a fan favourite and suitably toyetic, but this leaves Out of the Shadows in the weird position of having a primary antagonist who is only in play for the final twenty minutes of a film. As a result, the character of Shredder is slotted into the role of primary antagonist but given nothing to do. He only dons his iconic mask for about two minutes of screen time, while never using his iconic wrist claws for anything beyond intimidation. They become Chekov’s misfiring wrist-mounted blades.

Keep on truckin'...

Keep on truckin’…

To be fair, Out of the Shadows was unlikely to ever stand as a triumph of its genre. However, its script is ridiculously undercooked, without even a layer of wry knowing irony that might excuse the poorer storytelling choices. Character motivation varies from scene to scene. Each of the turtles gets a single defining trait, but those traits only come into play when it is convenient for the script, as opposed to existing as constants. Important dramatic or thematic beats are buried in the exposition given to Donatello, what should be big character moments treated as dismissive handwaves.

The fact that the turtles can withstand exposure to Kraag’s dimension is an important point for a film that touches on the question of how the turtles related to the world around them and whether their differences are a good thing. As much as Out of the Shadows has a consistent throughline – and it really doesn’t – it is the question of whether the turtles are stronger for their differences. As such, their differences making them the only people who can stop Kraag is a big deal, thematically. However, the detail is buried in the middle of a bunch of pseudo-science techno-babble.

Orange ya glad this all worked out...?

Orange ya glad this all worked out…?

Out of the Shadows even muddles its big thematic arc. Repeatedly throughout the film, the turtles grapple with the question of how best to engage with the world. The title alludes to the question of whether the turtles can ever integrate with the city they protect. It is not a bad idea, given that the turtles lend themselves to feelings of teenage estrangement and disengagement. However, the film never develops the theme enough, and its attempts to play it out in the final act feel clumsy and ill-judged. (It seems the turtles only come out of some very particular shadows.)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a disheartening and lifeless film, and nowhere near as delightfully and energetically ridiculous as the first four words of its title seem to promise.

8 Responses

  1. “…a film comfortable with its own shoddiness.”

    This is what it sounds like when a sashimi master is flipping his knives.

  2. “Nostalgia tends to cloud judgment, making it hard to properly assess the relative worth of something that had been an essential part of a person’s childhood.”
    Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a nutshell. This is a film that heavily relied on nostalgia to mask its numerous storytelling flaws, and unfortunately it worked, as the film made over 2 billion dollars.
    “At the same time, Mikey’s references to Scarface and Taxi Driver, not to mention a super creepy scene of Megan Fox changing outfits in Grand Central Station to dress as a sexy schoolgirl, suggest a teenage target demographic.” I have to wonder if this is still as successful in dragging teens in as in years past. After all, the internet provides the same crass titillation.

    • I’m quite fond of The Force Awakens, because I think it employs that nostalgia well. (I think Creed is an exemplary example of a show engaging with its own nostalgia, which took me by surprise.)

      But there’s no denying that The Force Awakens’ very much a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope with a more diverse cast and more modern special effects. However, I still think Jurassic World is my “nostalgia too far” film. Goodness does that film have no reason to exist beyond being tied that that thing you liked.

      And, yes. If I’m a teenager who wants Megan Fox dressed as a sexy school girl, I don’t need to sit through two hours of tedium to get that image.

  3. I thought the original 1990 TMNT film was actually pretty good. It was a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic and had some decent character development. I agree the rest of the films and even TV shows really don’t stand up. It seems like TMNT works best in the comics. I suspect it’s partly because comics can be wacky but also speak to more mature readers, whereas cartoons and even most genre movies have to be more kid-friendly.

    • Yeah. There wasn’t room for it in the review, but I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying the IDW TMNT series. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better (and flows a lot easier) than the film.

  4. Darren I really do hope you get around to the Mirage TMNT comics. Those will show you how the concept can produce mature emotional stories that rival Watchmen and DKR.

    • I’d say that’s true, but do measure expectations. Yes, it all began as a crude Daredevil/X-Men parody, and it’s fair to say that the learning curve had its share of ups and downs throughout Vol. 1 (e.g., the Exile to Northampton era, the polarizing Guest Era). As for when the series first “grew up,” that seemed to be the Shades of Gray two-parter (#48-49), which led to the master epic, City At War (#50-62) Both of which would prove Nicholas’ point, as Vol. 1 ended with a quite satisfying series finale.

      Unfortunately, that would become a problem for Mirage and post-City At War stories in a “where do you go from up” sense. The Mirage TMNT would soon suffer like a regular Big Two book: constant turnover in creative teams, extended hiatuses/inactivity, abrupt cancellations and the occasional character/plot stagnation. In fairness, there were many good stories in post-Vol. 1 Mirage TMNT (Vol. 2 had a fine cerebral start with Baxter Stockman’s slow burn revenge as a good side plot; Tales of the TMNT Vol. 2 #69 was what “Epilogue” was to JLU; the Gang Wars arc throughout Tales Vol. 2 had some real potential and brought back much needed “grim/gritty” street-level storytelling to balance Vol. 4’s era’s increasing sci-fi escapades), but City At War would mark the end of truly ambitious storytelling or storytelling with a proper overarching direction. Vol. 4 attempted to replicate the City At War writing style, but it suffered the classic “good ideas; bad execution” syndrome among other things.

      I’m a major TMNT fan, so I wanted to clarify that about the Mirage fare. Definitely worth the read, start to finish (if you were raised on the TMNT animated media like I was, you’ll get a good shock or two, as is expected), but, like many things, “when it’s good, nothing could be better vs. when it’s bad, nothing could be worse.”

      I’ll do a more general comment about the new movie and other side tangents in the near future.

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