A wonderfully wacky live-action cartoon that’s good enough to restore your faith in second chances, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” doesn’t just improve on 2014’s reboot of the ’80s most inexplicably un-killable franchise — it atones for it. Goofy where the previous installment was gritty, and graceful where the previous installment was chaotic, this sequel is such a huge step in the right direction that it may be more accurate to think of it as a mulligan.
Things are immediately zestier and more playful with Dave Green (“Earth to Echo”) replacing Jonathan Liebesman in the director’s chair — from the very first shot, “Out of the Shadows” moves with the lightness of a film that’s unburdened by the weight of telling an origin story. That sense of unstressed fun is evident in almost every scene, even the recap that blitzes through the events of the last film (which is conveyed via a TV news report that plays as the turtles watch a Knicks game from inside the jumbotron above Madison Square Garden).
It’s been two years since four genetically altered crime-fighting reptiles secretly saved New York City from the evil Shredder, but the humble heroes in the half-shell are still forced to live in the sewers, hiding from the world they’ve vowed to protect. By day, they hang out underground, exchange juvenile comic banter, and eat pizza by the pound. By night, they fling around the tops of skyscrapers like weightless CG spider-men, flying through the air like turtles are known to do.
There are only three people who know of their existence: Intrepid Eyewitness News reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), and the largely oblivious pizza guy who waits on a street corner to surreptitiously drop off Michelangelo’s nightly pie (in case it wasn’t already clear that the turtles are meant to be giant stoners). Oh, and also their evil nemesis, Shredder (Brian Tee), whose superpower is that he’s very angry and also not that nice. Shredder was a bore in the 2014 film, and he’s a bore here, but Green compensates for that in a big way by surrounding the series’ big bad guy with several of the franchise’s most beloved villains. You needn’t have read a page of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comics — or have seen a single episode of the famous animated television show that was adapted from them — to appreciate that “Out of the Shadows” nails them all.
First up is Dr. Baxter Stockman, a mad scientist portrayed to campy perfection by Tyler Perry (continuing to absolutely slay his supporting performances in other people’s movies). April gets a tip that Stockman, who Perry plays as a combination between Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Pillsbury Doughboy, is secretly working with Shredder. And oh boy is she right: Stockman has invented a teleportation device to help his new colleague bust out of the armored truck that’s shuttling him between prisons.
The second — and most lusciously mucus-covered — of the four main threats is introduced when Stockman’s device accidentally zaps Shredder into another dimension, where he’s greeted by a super-villain who feels like he dripped right off the splash page of an old school graphic novel. Krang (voiced by Brad Garett, whose voice has always been the official sound of pure evil), is a disembodied alien brain who has two tiny T-Rex arms, a massive cybernetic battle-suit, and a thick layer of slime that congeals around his pink folds.
Unfortunately, what Krang doesn’t have, is friends. Lonely and bored, he wants to invade Earth just for the fun of playing with a new toy, and he promises Shredder a place by his side if he helps procure the missing parts for the device he needs to open up an inter-dimensional portal and zap his war machine into our atmosphere. It’s a mystery why Shredder would want to rule over a planet where he was the only human left, but logical motivations aren’t really what “Out of the Shadows” is all about.
The film’s coterie of criminals is rounded out by two fan favorites who are finally making their live-action debuts. Dimwitted felons Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly) are reborn as dimwitted henchmen when Stockman unlocks their “inner animal spirit” (or whatever) and respectively transforms them into a mohawked warthog and a portly rhinoceros. Between the specious science that brought them to life, the completely baseless reasons why they want to fight for Shredder, and the surprisingly sweet gay innuendo that bonds them together, Bebop and Rocksteady represent the best of the film’s bizarro tone.
Whereas “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was a kids movie that appealed to a tween’s intellect and adult’s bloodlust, “Out of the Shadows” splits the difference and by consistently channeling the same operatic juvenilia that producer Michael Bay has perfected over the course of four “Transformers” movies. And if there’s any doubt that Bay was much more involved this time around, the first thing that Bebop and Rocksteady do after being transformed into massive animals is to check out their newly enlarged genitals and enthusiastically shout their catchphrase: “My man!”
Bay’s hand can be felt throughout, and almost always to the movie’s great advantage. Green deserves a ton of credit for staging a number of lucid, silkily choreographed action sequences — the turtles don’t even pretend to obey the laws of physics, and their film is all the better for it — and for infusing the dialogue scenes with that same rambunctious energy so that the film can seamlessly slide between modes. But Bay’s unmistakable influence is obvious in every respect. The scale of the set pieces reeks of his vulgar ambition, and the climactic battle directly quotes from the destruction of Chicago at the end of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
Of course, when it comes to Michael Bay, you’ve gotta take the good with the bad — which means that for every brilliant flourish there’s a scene like the one in which April stalks a suspect through Grand Central Station by slipping into a slutty schoolgirl outfit (because it just so happens to be Halloween, and there just so happens to be a booth selling slutty school girl outfits in the middle of Grand Central Station). Bay has never been much of a people person, and the human characters definitely get short shrift in this one. That can work to the film’s advantage — Fenwick is a real “less is more” type — but most of the new additions fall flat. Laura Linney is completely wasted as a stuck-up police chief, and “Out of the Shadows” grows dim whenever she’s used as a stand-in for the turtles’ frustrations with life underground.
Fortunately, Green’s sequel doesn’t have much interest in frustrations; this is a movie about unbridled joy, about transposing a cartoon veneer over a bleak human world. It’s a movie about a humanoid turtle named after an artist of the Italian Renaissance punching a giant brain in the face. And it’s the first TMNT movie in ages that doesn’t want to be anything else.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” is in theaters now.