A review of the latest TMNT movie – with extra cheese and a side of breadsticks!

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

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I suppose this is the part of the review where I’m expected to flash my badge of TMNT fandom so that I appear qualified to have an opinion on Out Of The Shadows. That’s how geek culture works these days, right? Heaven forbid I get one minor fact wrong and then some guy with Splinter motivational posters covering his bedroom wall accuses me of never reading the original comics. (Never having read the original comics doesn’t make me a fraud, does it? It does? Then I have read them. I’m insulted that you’d even ask.) I could talk about the way I wore out my original VCR recording of the 1990 movie to the point where every scene looked like it belonged in Citizen Kane. Or I could recap the conversation I had with Judith Hoag at a comic book convention. But I think I’ll go with mentioning how proud I am of the fact that I recently converted a female 22-year-old TMNT virgin into an aspiring April O’Neil cosplayer. Have you ever tried explaining the franchise’s appeal to an adult who had never been exposed to it? It’s a fun time.

“Okay, so there are these four giant turtles who live in a sewer. They walk on two feet, talk like surfers and eat a lot of pizza. They’re all karate experts because it was taught to them by their sensei who happens to be a giant rat. The turtles are all named after Renaissance artists, by the way. They fight crime at night, but operate without the help of authorities, so they’re basically like Batman. Hold on, don’t leave. That’s about as weird as it gets. Really. Their only friends are a female television news reporter and a guy who dresses like a hockey player. Their enemies are an evil ninja who sounds like Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an alien brain that lives inside a robot’s stomach, a giant rhinoceros, a giant warthog, and a British guy from the seventeenth century if you count the least popular movie.

….Okay, so I lied earlier about things being as weird as they get. But please give it a chance?”

Out Of The Shadows’ opening sequence quickly assured that I didn’t have to worry about a party that doesn’t know what to make of the source material. The turtles are given a grand entrance through the classic New York City establishing shot. We are positioned inches behind and beside the heroes in a half-shell as they leap and slide across skyscrapers on their way to Madison Square Garden – an experience even more jaw-dropping in 3D. Slow-motion graphics display the typical attributes. (Michelangelo – Pizza Eater.) Redundant, but welcome. The turtles are also given a new instrumental anthem from blockbuster-veteran composer Steve Jablonsky, adding to the majestic fictional universe these heroes adore. The sequence is a team labor of love – appropriate for the tests these characters encounter across the story map.

Picking up roughly a few months after the previous film left off, we see that life for the turtles hasn’t changed much. But everything has changed for sidekick Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). Since the turtles couldn’t take credit for the defeat and capture of Shredder without exposing themselves, they arranged to frame Vernon as the hero and new local celebrity. Will Arnett is the least convincing superhero when not in a voice recording studio. That makes it so hilarious to see citizens stand in awe of his faux power. Although it’s unanimous agreement that the arrangement was for the best, the turtles dream for a world where they could be accepted as the face of heroism. (Michelangelo: “Halloween party! The one night a year we blend in!”)

One of the most interesting revelations this new big-screen series gave us is a group of closet TMNT fans who won some dream acting roles. Last time we had Whoopi Goldberg. This time we have Laura Linney (playing the role of a police chief as if she was in the running for another Primetime Emmy), Tyler Perry (as Baxter Stockman who sadly has to wait until next time to cross-dress as a giant fly, and good luck getting his goofy chuckle out of your head), pro wrestler Sheamus (as Rocksteady), Whose Line Is It Anyway’s Gary Anthony Williams (as Bebop), and NBA star Carmelo Anthony (as himself.)

Controversial casting choice Megan Fox returns with another adequate performance as customary sidekick April O’Neil. I express disappointment with having to take back my praise of the franchise choosing not to objectify Fox’s pin-up looks. The slow-motion scene of April removing a wardrobe disguise is eye-rolling.

The most glaring disappointment however is the hyped big-screen return of Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). In the most canonical incarnations of the character, Jones is a well-meaning but rough-around-the-edges vigilante who shares enough physical and personality traits with the turtles to stand toe-to-toe with them. In the 1990 live-action film, Jones even gets the best of Raphael in their first encounter. By contrast, the Jones presented here is more of an afterthought, as if the screenwriters saw “April O’Neal love interest” in a Wikipedia bio and stopped reading there. There is no explanation or reference to his hockey attire except that it’s what he wears in the other side of his double life as an entry-level NYPD cop. He is completely outmatched by the turtles and has a bland impact on the plot. I suspect a symptom of SpiderMan3ingitis: a case where strong attempts to satisfy fan service causes the body to fall under the weight of too many goals. Good thing the turtles themselves are still as fun to watch as ever.

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The turtles’ new main nemesis is an alien invasion led by Krang (voice of Brad Garrett): a character that doesn’t quite work in live action form, but not for lack of trying. Teaming with Baxter and a returning Shredder, the evil warlords work to locate Earth’s remaining traces of mutagen ingredients to help even the score against the turtles and take over the world. Chases for the MacGuffin take place in the Manhattan city streets, the skies above Brazil and the Technodrome in outer space. It’s only to allow setpiece room for the battles that the marketing campaign banks on, but that’s reason enough. The trend of favoring big action stunts over authentic martial arts continues. Most of the hand-to-hand combat is reserved for the final battle with Krang. There are no show-stoppers on the level of the previous movie’s snow hill chase, but there are enough big “wow” moments bound to help empty the popcorn bag. The best one? I’m voting for the plane-to-plane leap ending in a waterfall tumble.

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The turtles take a new interest in the mutagen when they realize it also has the power to flush out their reptile DNA and enable them to exist as superhumans. Disagreement over their destiny creates a disruptive rift among the team that gradually heals as the number of negative human encounters stack up. In a continuity-breaking moment, the turtles retreat in fear when the NYPD guns are pointed at them (The previous film shows the turtles to be immune to bullets). The final battle with Krang determining the fate of the world forces the turtles to make a life-altering decision: become part of humanity, or emerge from the shadows in their true form. The lead-up to their fateful decision is emotional, and likely more so if the scattered subplots weren’t an interfering problem.

Besides heavy implications of more sequels, the film concludes with a new arrangement of Chuck Lorre’s iconic TMNT theme song that got me jigging in the seats and ready to find the nearest Konami arcade cabinet. The current scale indicates that the Michelangelo party animals are more likely to appreciate this ongoing series more than the Raphael cynics. So who’s with me? COW-A-BUNGA!

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Score Board:

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Turtles: 10 (out of 10)

Splinter: 9 (out of 10)

Rocksteady and Bebop: 8 (out of 10)

Krang: 7 (out of 10)

April O’Neil: 6 (out of 10)

Casey Jones: 4 (out of 10)

Vern Fenwick: 10 (out of 10)

Crust: Brooklyn-style garlic

Cheeses: 3

Sauce: Marinara

Cooked: Well-done

Anchovies: 0

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Overall: 8 (out of 10)

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