Review: A new director brings some welcome energy and charm to 'Turtles' sequel
Dave Green’s first film, Earth To Echo, had some mighty familiar DNA. You could tell that he was a fan of ‘80s Amblin’ films and that he’d absorbed the lessons of the film on a nearly molecular level like many of the film nerd kids who grew up on those movies. More than anything, he got the relationships between the kids right in that film, and it appears he carried that skill set over to a franchise that I have very little personal fondness for, resulting in what may well be the most consistently fun live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie ever made.
It’s easy to dismiss someone’s fondness for something as pure nostalgia, but it’s also reductive and, in many cases, not why someone loves something. I may not personally be a Turtles fan, but I know enough of them (and have fathered a few of my own), so I get the appeal. Under everything else, what fans hold onto from interpretation to interpretation is the relationship between Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), as well as their connection to both their best friend April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and their sensei and father-figure Splinter the Rat (Tony Shaloub). If you get that relationship right, you’re ahead of the game. Green, along with writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, takes the time to paint each of the Turtles as an individual, leaning into the things that make them different and the way those relationships work.
The other thing Green seems to have embraced this time around is the overall silliness of the world and the premise. The worst mistake you can make is to try to make this too dark, too serious, too “real.” I know, comic nerds… everything needs to be dark and gritty to be worthwhile, and I remember the original Eastman/Laird comics. I am old enough to have been there for the very start of the book. My buddy Bill Rosemann was the comic nerd in the neighborhood, and he had his eye on this one even before it was in stores. I remember how excited he was by all of it. The black-and-white art, the winking satire of the way comics worked in general, and the energy of the storytelling. He was an immediate fan. I wish I’d taken his advice and purchased several copies of that first issue and bagged and boarded them, but it’s just one more case of his near-prescience when it came to identifying comics that would drive people crazy.
Even in those “dark” early comics, though, there is a knowing absurdity, and that only grew once it moved to cartoon form. This time around, there are bad guys like Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) and, in spectacularly gross fashion, Krang (Brad Garrett), and they could not be weirder or more ridiculous. And that works. It helps. If you’ve already got giant talking humanoid turtles eating pizza and riding skateboards, why wouldn’t you embrace the preposterous? There are a number of sequences with Bebop and Rocksteady that are just silly, and staged with a kinetic energy that is not just relentless and numbing. Green's got a knack for finding small jokes inside bigger moments and enjoying the stuff he's staging, and it makes a big difference. It doesn't feel impersonal, which is a default for many studio films.
Both Will Arnett and Stephen Amell score as Vern Fenwick and Casey Jones, and while her introductory scene leans too heavily on bimbo camouflage for a kids’ film, there are some nice moments for Megan Fox as well. Her job as a reporter makes no sense, because she's mainly a crimefighting superhero, but whatever. It’s interesting to see Laura Linney show up as the chief of police, if for no other reason than it seems downright revolutionary in a film connected to Michael Bay to have her in that position. The movie suffers from being the same shape as so many modern blockbusters, and the plot in the second half of the film is basically another riff on the “reach the glowing doodad on a roof to prevent the end of the world” structure. But the focus on the Turtles and the film’s overall amiable sense of goofball humor carries the day, and my kids, fans of both the old cartoon and the latest series, were delighted by things like the giant garbage truck Donatello invents and the way Krang appears as a weird brain-looking alien sticking out of a robot’s stomach. They found the entire thing accurate to what they love about the property, and watching them watch the film was as much fun for me as the movie itself.
Technically speaking, the Turtles are seamlessly realized. Green effortlessly marries them to the real world, and that’s true of all of the film’s effects. It helps buy into the relationships between Donny, Raph, Mikey and Leo if they feel like they are actual physical creatures, but because they are full CGI creations, they are able to do things that the suit performers could never have pulled off. Much of what works is simply the time they spend together and the little behaviors back and forth. The only other time I’ve enjoyed these relationships this same way was in Kevin Munroe’s TMNT, the computer-animated version. He understood how important it is to push those four core relationships to the foreground, and Green and his team do the same thing here. I liked the way they used each of the Turtles in the film, and while I can’t always tell you what defines each of them, it’s clear here. Mikey and his desire to live in some sort of “normal” way is the heart of the film, and everything’s driven by the way each of his brothers reacts to that desire. There’s a video at the top of this article where I talk to Roth Cornet about the way movies have over-used the imagery of mass destruction, numbing audiences, and we talk a bit about how the smaller the stakes in a film, the more it can help an audience connect to the characters on a personal level. What matters in this film is where the Turtles end up, and the giant global destructo-stuff is the background to that, which feels like the right balance.
Will this win over people who find the whole thing ridiculous? Nope. This is a film for fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it feels like an affectionate, energetic effort, clearly coming from a place of real appreciation for why these characters have endured.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows is in theaters Friday.