Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Cinema Review)

12A – 112mins – 2016 – 3D


 

… AND INTO THE FIGHT

Surfing high on tides of turtle power thanks to my furious franchise refresh, you may wonder why I went to the effort of rushing out my reviews of the five previous big screen anthropomorphized amphibian adventures quicker than Splinter up a drainpipe only to stall when it came to giving my verdict on the theatrical release of this Platinum Dunes follow-up to their blockbuster 2014 reboot?

The truth is, I was in the cinema on opening day (May 30th), pepperoni pizza in hand (seriously) and mind ready to be blown by the belated big screen bow of “jacked up disco ball” Krang (Brad Garrett) and mutant goofballs Rocksteady (WWE’s Sheamus) and Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), and… Out of the Shadows left me disappointed.

While the second half of Dave Earth to Echo Green’s Michael Bay-produced sewer sequel improves by focusing on Shredder’s (Brian Tee) attempts to locate the fragmented components of an ancient portal-ripping machine in order to open a dimensional rift and bring the Technodrome through to invade Earth, I was still reeling from the Secret of the Ooze-riffing opening half which felt like a chaotic, hyperactive mess of CG-clowning from far too many characters with too few clear-cut motives.

As well as bringing back the turtle’s defeated arch nemesis, his daughter Karai (Brittany Ishibashi) and the faceless Foot soldiers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 also squeezes eye candy Megan Fox as human confidant April O’Neil and Will Arnett as comic relief everyman Vern Fenwick into the story. While I was initially concerned that “The Falcon” was receiving short shrift, his change of fortune is worked into the plot well.

The toy chest is further raided to bring anxious scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler “Madea” Perry) and hockey-loving vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Arrow Amell) out to play alongside the ninjitsu-trained shellbacks and their furry mentor (Tony Shaloub) in bringing down the “chewed up piece of gum” and the rhino and piggy-shaped hench-mutants. It’s no wonder that next to this veritable menagerie of kooky characters, Laura Linney struggles to stand out as the sole straight player in the thankless role of NYC’s Police Chief.

Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s script is also rammed full of fan-servicing callbacks (the manhole-projecting Turtle Van; the cartoon theme song as a car horn; Donnie’s ‘toon chops on April’s data-nabbing watch) and effervescent catchphrase-forcing banter (“My man!”). If you’re prepared, it’s a high-energy blast, but if not it’s nearly two draining hours of insufferable, overblown, try-hard map-cappery with the ugliest alien eyesores this side of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

While Out of the Shadows has had its detractors (The Guardian gifted it just one star, while I overheard a Radio 5 Live discussion which was determined to discourage people from seeing this box office hit), I was downcast at the mondo notion that I was among them. However, a raft of positive film blog reviews reaffirmed my faith in the franchise I will always cherish from my childhood. A return trip to the cinema was planned…

And second time was a charm for this busy-but-nostalgic fun-fest. Maybe because my expectations were lowered, or because my mind was more attuned to the frenzied rate of play (the opening five minutes, in particular, gives the impression that everything from prison breakouts to undercover espionage missions, NBA basketball games, celebrity interviews and Halloween parades all take place on one ‘average’ night in the city), but I legitimately found my opinion raised.

I still accept that it has its flaws (the Brazilian rapids rumble is as indecipherably-choreographed and hard to follow as 2014’s downhill slalom, while Stephen Amell is neither cool or rebellious enough to convince as Casey), but it is a baby-step up from Jonathan Liebesman’s antecedent. Nullify your noggin and Out of the Shadows delivers a tongue-in-cheek, pizza-brained barrage of banter and blockbusting bangs for your buck.

While the current Nickelodeon TV series goes from strength-to-strength on the small screen, I still acknowledge that we are yet to hit gold with a fully consistent TMNT movie. But if things continue to improve film-on-film then maybe the all-but-announced trilogy closer will be a real “Cowabunga” classic? My claws are crossed…

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

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TMNT (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 87mins – 2007


 

DISBAND OF BROTHERS

14 years (and numerous TV incarnations) after their time travel adventure in Feudal Japan (Turtles in Time reviewed HERE), the lean, green, turtle teens returned to the silver screen with a space-saving, text-friendly, lousy noughties buzzword of an acronym – and a sharply-rendered CG makeover, courtesy of Imagi Animated Studios.

But while the half-shell heroes might look and sound different, a sneak peak at Master Splinter’s (Mako Iwamatsu) trophy cabinet confirms they are still the same pizza loving, freedom fighting foursome from the live action early 90s trilogy who defeated Shredder, rapped with Vanilla Ice and fought in a 17th century Samurai civil war – even if the years have not been kind to them.

“This place used to be fun…”

As we return to the action, leader Leo (James Arnold Taylor) is on a skill-sharpening sojourn in South America, leaving Donnie (Mitchell Whitfield) and Mikey (Mikey Kelley) to get personality-appropriate day jobs in I.T. Customer Care and Party Entertainment, respectively. Rebel Raph (Nolan North), meanwhile, is angrier at the world than ever before, taking out his frustrations on NYC’s scum as the metal-suited vigilante Nightwatcher.

Reporter and eyes on the street, April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), meanwhile, is now shacked up with Casey Jones (Chris “Captain America” Evans) and out of the News field. Her new cargo delivery company provides the catalyst for this wild ancient-statues-brought-to-life plot which in scope and scale is the most outrageous and fantastical quest yet.

In my review of Platinum Dunes’ 2014 reboot (reviewed HERE) I dismissed TMNT as a “dud” because the first and only time I had previously seen it – in the cinema NINE years ago – I had felt thoroughly fazed and frustrated by this uncharacteristic misstep. However, given a second chance on blu-ray during my pre-Out of the Shadows franchise refresh, I found far more to love than to fret over.

I still insist that Max Winters’ (Patrick Stewart) immortal warrior king aspect is messy as shell and unnecessarily convoluted in sci-fi mumbo-jumbo (“Stars of Kikan”, “Legend of Yaotl”?!!), however the disparate characterisation is still remarkably solid and the quip-heavy banter still popping (even if the pop-culture references have been toned down – save for Splinter’s Gilmore Girls adoration), while the slick animation allows for livelier and more dynamic action than ever before.

The impassioned character drama is moodier and more nourish than it has been since 1990’s theatrical bow (reviewed HERE), while the fan-servicing inclusion of Karai (Zhang Ziyi) and the remnants of Shredder’s Foot Clan (even if it is as little more than masked bodyguards) are welcome nods to the golden days. It’s just a shame the sheen is scuffed by an epic fail of a fantasy conceit which requires far too much expositional explanation (courtesy of Laurence Fishburne’s narration) to make a jot of sense.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 96mins – 1993


 

COSMIC CRUISE

“Relax, April, It’s just your ordinary time-travel-equal-mass-displacement thing.”

After sitting out The Secret of the Ooze, Elias Koteas and Corey Feldmen both reprised their respective roles of vigilante Casey Jones and the voice of Donatello in this second – and final for some 14 years – big screen sequel to 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Having not seen Turtles in Time since the bygone days of Ritz VHS rentals, I had – in the intervening two decades – lazily adopted the general public perception that this culture (shell-)shock ‘turtles out of water’ time travel adventure was a hokey and frivolous farce; a lesser beast than its two more weighty predecessors.

So imagine my “mondo surprise” following my blu-ray revisit last night to find that I actually prefer this third film! I am so used to modern franchises getting progressively darker and moodier as they progress, but it is actually to the credit of this Stuart Gillard-steered cultural exchange that the tone is lighter and more consistent throughout – these turtles have dispensed with Shredder and the Foot Clan and found their groove!

“Talk about your Quantum Leap!”

With Jim Henson’s Creature Shop replaced by All Effects Company on animatronic duties, the turtle suits do look a tad more obvious (eyes are rounder, spots stand out more and the green skin tone more vibrant), but aside from a couple of instances where you can spot a gap between the bandana and eye holes, they aren’t jarringly different or cheaper-looking. Plus a more cartoony-vibe actually suits the film’s more jovial tone.

With human compadre April O’Neil (Paige Turco) accidentally sent back to feudal Japan thanks to a magical golden sceptre (or “weird Japanese antique egg timer”) she picked up at the flea market, it is up to the amphibious foursome to “open wide the gates of time” and follow her back to the 15th century in order to bring her home.

“Hello mustard?!”

“Okay, so my Japanese is a little rusty…”

With the sceptre balancing out any paradoxes by replacing any time travellers with the same number of people from the earlier period, it is up to aged mentor Splinter (James Murray) and Casey to be on babysitting duties for some understandably confused honour guards, while the turtles are plunged shell-first into a large scale civil war.

This does make the narrative somewhat lopsided, with the impressively grandiose jaunt in Japan taking precedence (that was where the budget was spent, after all), but to make a return to the franchise more appealing than simply feeding junk food and teaching hockey to some bemused foreign warriors, Elias Koteas plays a dual role as bearded spy Whit in 1603.

The pizza-lust and landslide of popular culture references are still reliably in place – although allusions to Elvis, James Dean and The Three Stooges do mean they’ll stay relevant for longer than Wayne Gretzky. So, too, are Raphael’s (Tim Kelleher) “turtle tantrums,” while profuse weapon usage during the battle sequences and the imparting of some sage advice to young villagers does lend the comedy some levity – and Raph a character-enhancing epiphany.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 88mins – 1991


 

OOZE THE DADDY?

“What did you expect, that they’d come out quoting Macbeth?!”

Arguably, Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema’s fast-tracked return to the sewers finds a better balance between bandits and buffoonery than its schizophrenic predecessor of the year before, ramping up the silliness of the obviously preposterous scenario while toning down the ass kickin’ and dulling the pitiful relatability of the real world elements. The recouped and recovering Foot Clan, for instance, are this time portrayed more in a Power Rangers-esque Putty Patrol mould of faceless drones.

From endless pop culture references (“Wax on, wax off!”) to an intrinsic role for the mutagen-containing contaminated cannisters which brought life to the subterranean slice scoffers, all of the most popular and instantly associated elements of the franchise are back for The Secret of the Ooze. Even arch nemesis Shredder (François Chau) manages to dig himself out of the junk yard following his diving “death” during Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rooftop climax!

But there is also much that has changed since the first film, with Paige Turco replacing Judith Hoag as April O’Neil – who now works for Channel 3 rather than 6 – while love/hate romantic counterpart Casey Jones is not even mentioned! Donatello is sounding a lot less like Corey Feldman, too – while the improved animatronic turtle heads courtesy of Jimt Henson’s Creature Shop are more malleable to such an extent that they are almost too expressive. On a sidenote: this film is dedicated to the legendary Muppets puppeteer, who sadly passed away in May 1990.

It’s a huge shame that the opportunity to bring brainless brutes Bebop and Rocksteady to the big screen was scuppered by a difficulty with legal clearances, with wolf Rahzar and snapping turtle Tokka (both voice by Frank Welker) instead being the mutagen-modified monsters a vengeful Shredder forces scientist Jordan Perry (David Warner) to create to fight his enemies in a “freak versus freak” revenge plot.

“Didn’t we see these guys on Wrestlemania?!”

As much as I initially favoured the injection of more comic frivolity, come the climatic showdown I did start to crave a dose of the dramatic. Instances where Shredder contently looks on while his infant-minded creatures are fed poisonous donuts during a fight scene strains credulity. The in-universe incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” theme song into proceedings when the battle spills over into a dance club in which the star is performing is acceptable as a camera-winking cameo, but the scene stretches on waaaay too long – and when Shredder steps onto the stage only to be defeated by loud music, you do start to question whether you’re watching Bill & Ted!

“Go ninja, go ninja, go!”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze starts strongly but this bodacious demand-dictated big screen re-tread ultimately falls foul of sequel-itis: more of the same, but BIGGER – which we literally get when Shredder gets a muscle-bulging, armour-enhancing dose of mutagen. As voice-of-reason Splinter (Kevin Clash) remarks with a (realistic) roll of his eyes: “Oy!

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 96mins – 1990


 

SEWER SAMURAI

“Where do they come up with this stuff?!”

It’s been a good number of years since I last watched this original Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema live action Turtles treatment, but a US trilogy blu-ray triple-discer was the perfect excuse for a rewatch of this alternative origin story ahead of Out of the Shadows on May 30th.

Amazingly, the physicality of the Jim Henson Creature Shop-designed animatronic shell suits still holds up 26 years later, with ragged rat Splinter (Kevin Clash) arguably looking better here than he does in CG in Platinum Dune’s 2014 reboot. His meditative characterisation is also the perfect counterpart to his teenage student’s goofiness (“Hrrm… kids!!”), and you genuinely sympathise for the furry Yoda-like mentor when he is kidnapped, strung up and tortured by arch-nemesis Shredder (James Saito) and his gang of lost boys-turned soldiers, the Foot Clan.

It is in the film’s portrayal of this real-world street crime undertaken by misguided kids feeling rejected by society that a real dissonance in tone is felt. While the sewer-dwelling siblings are getting teenage kicks from trading 90s pop-culture references (Rocky, Wheel of Fortune, Wayne Gretzky, Grapes of Wrath, Ghostbusters) and frivolous banter (“Give me three!”), the grittiness of the plague of thievery which reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is investigating lends the film a darker tone akin to punkish urban noir – a million miles from animatronic heads doing James Cagney impersonations!

This uncomfortable alliance is most evident when Raphael’s (Josh Pais) gang attack is juxtaposed with Mikey’s (Robbie Rist) playful symbol clashing – its as if director Steve Billie Jean Barron wanted to retain the “gnarly radicalness” of the popular Fred Wolf Films cartoon series while balancing the kid-friendly yucks with a more visceral and conscientious adult-appealing levity, like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s edgier original panel-premiering inception.

There’s an astute level of catharsis achieved by a post-second act out of town ‘breather’ sequence, not to mention a nostalgic appeal to the dated vibe, but in attempting to darken such a wacky premise my mind was drawn to an uncomfortable recent parallel: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. I’ll always look on this memento from my childhood through rose-tinted glasses, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not without its faults, even if the pizza guzzlers’ irresistible charm wins through in the end. Hrrm, kids!

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (DVD Review)

12 – 97mins – 2014 


 

DIGI-SHELL HEROES

Two years before Paul Feig powered up his proton pack for this summer’s unduly controversial girl-powered Ghostbusters reimagining, four more of my childhood action heroes received a big money, blockbuster makeover, courtesy of new rights holders Nickelodeon Movies and Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. Cowabunga, dudes!

While Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman’s half shell overhaul never received quite the same ferocity of fanboy fury as Feig’s fright-fighting femmes, there were still some contentious changes to the longstanding continuity which irked franchise purists (Sensai Splinter, for instance, was never a human fighting champion but a lab rat who learnt his ninja skills in the sewer), while the so-called aesthetic ‘realism’ of the mo-capped CG amphibians was rightfully lambasted as flat-out ugly.

“I’m a snapping turtle, fool!”

From humble comic book beginnings to animatronic live action movie stars (via countless small screen ventures), the sheer volume of conflicting incarnations the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have endured over their 35 year history has perhaps softened any shellshock I may feel towards any minor mutation to their origin story. However, I must confess to being impressed by the cohesion to the character’s backstory in Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Evan Daugherty’s script, with News Reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) made personally responsible for saving Leo, Donnie, Raph and Mikey from a lab fire at her father’s facility back in 1999.

This efficient streamlining extends to the villains of the piece, too, with human antagonist and billionaire CEO Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) established as April’s deceased pa’s former scientific colleague working towards “Project Renaissance”, with grill-chopped lead villain Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) their power-hungry, mutagen-mad boss. Now there is a driving force behind the degeneracy, rather than simply ‘because they’re bad guys.’ Sadly, Shredder’s overarching portrayal is reduced to mere faceless weapon, with his iconic caped-costumed excessively pimped out to make him look like a “Robot Samurai” in Transformers cosplay.

Elsewhere, the characterisation is strong, with the pizza lovin’, pop culture obsessed teenage bro’s distinctive personalities solidified early on (leader, brainbox, rebel, comic), leading to some sparkling banter. Megan Fox was certainly a curious casting choice for the usually ginger, yellow jumpsuit-wearing reporter, but she manages to keep the justice-chasing go-getter grounded and deliver more than just “a little froth,” while Channel 6 cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) is charmingly fleshed out as a nervous, hopeless flirt crushing on his leading lady.

Upon leaving the multiplex back in 2014 my response was one of apathy, but with a sequel surfing into cinemas at the end of the month I decided to take another trip to the sewers of NYC, and I liked hanging out with these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a shell of a lot more than I remembered.

“Tiramisu for everybody!”

I concede that it has a rather messy, hyperactive tone (“MC Mikey” can’t even ride in a lift without making some noise, while a camera-swooping cliff-drop set piece is constantly narrated by wisecracks) and its ‘gritty’ desire to detail large-scale devastation is elevated to Man of Steel proportions, but I was far more invested in these “fairytale vigilantes” second time around and found far more favourable factors than frustrating faults. I plan to revisit all of the motion picture outings in the lead-up to Out of the Shadows’ May 30th release, including 2007 CGI dud TMNT – wish me luck, compadres.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars