Michael Bay has never directed a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, only produced them through his Platinum Dunes company (alongside several other companies, including Paramount, Nickelodeon, and at least one Chinese conglomerate). But not since the days of vintage Amblin has a movie’s big-name producer been so slavishly imitated by underlings. Bay’s first Ninja Turtles movie was directed by knockoff artist Jonathan Liebesman. For the second, subtitled Out Of The Shadows, Bay has hired Dave Green (Earth To Echo) to hew even closer to his preferred and oft-expressed aesthetic. The movie is chockablock with low and canted angles, lens flares, an endlessly roving camera, rich colors, and Megan Fox’s midriff.
But outside of an extended Fox-ogling scene featuring an inexplicable costume-change into a schoolgirl outfit, this second Ninja Turtles movie distinguishes itself from its Transformers cousins by actually courting the appropriate kid audience. The Transformers movies are kid-friendly in so far as they star the Transformers; this Turtles movie commits even harder than its predecessor to the tone of a big-budget Saturday morning cartoon. Green joins Con Air’s Simon West in the dubious pantheon of directors who have done Bay better than Bay has—or at least, have done it without betraying quite so much affection for the macho bullies of the world.
This doesn’t mean that Out Of The Shadows is good, exactly—and certainly not as good as Con Air, in case any parents have been waiting for that kind of deranged miracle. The movie picks up a year after the events of the last one, with computer-animated turtle brothers Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) lurking in, yes, the shadows, having credited TV cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) with their defeat of the nefarious Shredder (Brian Tee). Their journalist pal April O’Neil (Fox) works with them to investigate wrongdoing, and she’s chased a lead to scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), who appears to be conspiring with a jailed Shredder and the rest of the Foot Clan. Amazingly, this isn’t the end of the movie’s villain lineup; in true Saturday morning cartoon fashion, it also manages to pull in Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus), two hired goons mutated into a giant warthog-man and a giant rhino-man, respectively; and Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett), a brain creature from space who marches around in a robot body.
The chain of evil plans formed by Stockman, Bebop, Rocksteady, Shredder, and Krang isn’t worth describing in great detail; why explain what the movie barely does? (Among its many mysteries: Why Stockman seems convinced that helping Krang bring about the end of the world will secure his place in science history.) Suffice to say that it all leads back to Krang, as all evil plots must. Adapted into CG animation (and converted to 3-D in some theaters), Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady bring a welcome monster-movie grotesquerie to the world of the Ninja Turtles. These characters aren’t well-defined, or even especially funny. But there is something compelling about the way the movie fully realizes an oozing, vaguely effete tentacled brain alien through the dark magic of special effects.
The Turtles themselves also probably qualify as special-effects marvels, though they’re still a lot more hulking and heaving than they need to be, especially to perform such acrobatic stunts. The movie opens with a winding slide in and out of New York City sewers and tunnels as the Turtles grab a pizza and hit a Knicks game, and though it’s pointlessly frenetic (in that the sequence doesn’t need to be so frenetic, and also doesn’t need to exist at all), its defiance of gravity results in some pretty neat 3-D tricks. Their presence might have more weight if Out Of The Shadows better developed another monster-movie thread it brings up: the fact that the Turtles lurk in the margins of the city, fearful of being misunderstood by its population, easy to confuse with the monsters they’re attempting to fight off. But it quickly turns into just another teamwork parable, to the point where the Turtles’ supposed purpose—helping people—seems like a secondary concern.
More pressing, apparently: having Michelangelo cue the kids in the audience to have a good time by constantly exclaiming “This is awesome!” (His positivity does result in one fun running gag, where he inexplicably thinks the best of Bebop and Rocksteady, long after they’ve established themselves as enemies to the Turtles). Another tilting, whirling, plane-shifting set piece that happens outside of New York (like the first film’s mountainside chase) does approach actual awesomeness, albeit with a lot of excess noise. Elsewhere, the movie takes liberties with its baby’s first blockbuster approach, variously ripping off the Dark Knight truck chase, the Avengers alien invasion over Manhattan, and even, at one point, bits of the Mad Max: Fury Road score. Even the Turtles’ most direct rebuke of the Michael Bay philosophy, in which they express their distaste for bullies, is jacked from the first Captain America. This movie steals from the best, though not in a film-drunk Quentin Tarantino sort of way.
Make no mistake: Out Of The Shadows is every bit as mercenary, nonsensical, and loud as a typical Michael Bay production. (The pop soundtrack cues may be even louder, and make even less sense.) Yet while it’s not necessarily a good thing to aim this kind of weaponized marketing at kids, it’s also silly and colorful enough to nearly work as a live-action cartoon. It might rot brains, but perhaps not while regarding them with utter contempt.