If you buy a ticket for a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows you get what you paid for. It follows the stereotypical sequel strategy of “same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.” Like its predecessor, the 2014 reboot of the 90’s big-screen live-action adaptations of the animated TV interpretations of the comic books – it’s a nesting doll of cultural recycling – it follows the continuing adventures of a quartet of teenage turtles who are mutant ninjas. Or are they teenage mutants who are turtle ninjas? Or would it be more accurate to call them mutant turtles who are teenage ninjas? However you arrange the adjectives, they’re a mostly indistinguishable group. You can tell them apart by their headbands’ colors, and the small particulars, like the nerd’s goggles and the brawn’s gruffness, and the dweeb’s annoying wisecracks. Anyway, there’s yet another threat to New York City and the turtles have to jump into action and save the day. Cowabunga and whatnot.
Out of the Shadows is a glossy live-action cartoon, with hulking steroidal turtles, buff beasts with hard shells and harder abs, bouncing through energetic adventure sequences. The plot, again by screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, is pitched at the lower end of the Saturday morning cartoon level, with thin motivations and broad conflict broken up into episodic chunks and strung along by clunky exposition and juvenile humor. But the action is often enjoyable as big, dumb, colorful excitement involving: a tricked-out garbage truck in attack mode; a mad scientist; evil ninjas; two felons mutated into vaguely humanoid large jungle animals by purple ooze; a tank; a waterfall; a hockey stick; three glowing MacGuffins; a portal in the sky spitting out a gigantic war machine piece by piece; and an interdimensional slimy tentacle-waggling brain stuffed inside a robot.
Director Dave Green – of the amiably passable kid-friendly found-footage E.T. knockoff Earth to Echo – knows his way around slick, silly movement, shooting it all in an energetic and propulsive style. It’s bouncy and convincing enough, even when a giant rhino man is chasing a dude who has slapped together makeshift rollerblades. Matching the first movie’s standout setpiece of a semi sliding down a mountain, this one features a sequence in which the turtles jump out of one plane onto another, fight inside that plane’s cargo hold, then crash it into a rainforest river that takes them down rapids while fleeing a tank. It’s a neat feat of totally nutty adventure. That’s fun. The rest of the movie can be a bit of a slog, trudging through flat human story beats, with returning reporter April (Megan Fox, used mostly for sex appeal in a movie ostensibly aimed at 9-year-olds) as a turtle ally. Meanwhile, her cameraman (Will Arnett) is taking public credit for the turtle’s heroism from the last time.
We’re introduced to new people who only exist to push along the plot. There’s Stephen Amell as a police officer determined to find the now-fugitive Shredder (Brian Tee) after seeing him escape on his watch. There’s Tyler Perry as the aforementioned mad scientist, amusingly playing him like a slightly goofier Neil deGrasse Tyson. There’s Laura Linney as a no-nonsense detective, totally straight-faced while talking to CGI teenage mutant ninja turtles like they’re real people. None of these people are characters; they're barely even story. Eventually the gooey brain (with the voice of Brad Garrett) is threatening to emerge and, I don’t know, smash up New York a bit. The whole thing is conventional summer blockbuster stuff, with the bad guys snatching up MacGuffins and the good guys trying to stop a disaster movie from breaking out.
Sure, the PG-13 cartoon roughhousing is sometimes diverting enough, but without a reason to care it’s hard to get invested beyond the surface spectacle. I suppose it comes down to me not liking the turtles, and not even being able to tell them apart most of the time even though they introduce themselves at least three times over the course of this movie. They’re not as poorly characterized as the humans, but they’re still hard to know beyond the token “likes pizza” and “good at ninja things” details. They don’t even have much conflict, idly wondering if people would ever accept them out of the sewers before re-embracing their secrecy. They learn to work together and share their feelings. It’s rote kids’ movie moralizing, just another unsuccessful way to make it seem like this silly distraction amounts to something worthwhile beyond its all too fleeting goofy flashes of excitement.