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TMNT: Out of the Shadows manages to make Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sad

TMNT: Out of the Shadows.
TMNT: Out of the Shadows.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There's an inexplicable, deliberate sadness to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.

I'm not just saying that because the Turtles earnestly root for the New York Knicks, whose combined record since the 2014 reboot of the franchise is a sad 49-115.



I'm not just saying that because three-time Academy Award nominee Laura Linney not only appears in the movie but has to mutter the phrase, "Well played." Or because Tyler Perry shows up to cosplay as an evil version of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

No, I'm saying that because the Turtles seem a bit depressed. They live like vampires, only coming out at night and never letting their true selves be seen. Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo don't like the way they look, and believe in their hearts that even if they save the world, humanity will never accept them.

At best, they only barely resemble the fun-loving reptiles many of us remember from the '90s, when kids wanted to be the Ninja Turtles because the Turtles' lives — centered on martial arts, pizza, nunchucks, and cowabungas — seemed like a blast. Instead, in the eyes of Out of the Shadows director Dave Green, the heroes in a half-shell are the bête noire of society.

It's not that people won't gravitate to the idea of the Turtles being lonely outsiders; that approach has worked for superheroes like the X-Men and Batman. But I'm a little puzzled as to why Out of the Shadows utterly lacks joy and silliness and prioritizes scowl, when the entire Ninja Turtles franchise is built on having fun.

Indeed, if the movie accomplishes anything, it's that it makes "It's Turtle Time" feel more like a threat than a battle cry.

Is anyone having fun in this movie?

I spent a lot of Out of the Shadows' inappropriately lengthy running time (just shy of two hours) mulling what kind of circumstances brought Linney to the point of playing a shopworn New York police chief who exists primarily to be a pain the ass to the film's heroes.

Did producer Michael Bay pull her out of a burning building? Are there incriminating photos of her eating baby animals? Did someone stumble on a gag reel of outtakes from her Downton Abbey intros on PBS?

She clearly doesn't want to be in this film.

Thankfully, not everyone is having a bad a time as Linney. Perry's Doctor Baxter Stockman — the evil Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Ninja Turtles universe — is weird and silly and suggests that Perry has a strange fascination with the man. Stephen Amell and his Casey Jones are also in on the joke of it all. And Will Arnett gets to unleash some fun physical comedy as cameraman turned New York City pseudo hero Vernon Fenwick.

There's also the flatulent, fat pairing of Bebop and Rocksteady — a mutant rhino and warthog duo whose friendship is one of the most endearing things about the film.

But they're not enough to distract from Linney's performance or the bigger problem: the Turtles themselves. You can almost get past the fact that they look like bulging, dirty avocados. You can forgive the ugly CGI, since it tracks with their story: They live in sewers and never see daylight; they're not going to be wearing bright colors or using crisp, whimsical gadgets.

That's fine.

But Out of the Shadows doesn't contain a single whiff of what originally made Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo — or their chemistry as a team — so appealing. There's more character building in the theme song for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV cartoon from the '80s ("Raphael is cool but rude / Michelangelo is a party dude") than there is in this boondoggle.

The film's characterization operates mostly along the lines of recognizing what the purple one does and what he's good at. And it never really prods itself to go beyond that.

Like so many other reboots, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a cheap play for nostalgia

Two years removed from the first film, Out of the Shadows takes place in a New York that's relatively calm. Shredder has been neutralized, giving the Turtles a break and allowing them to enjoy Knicks games, eat pizza, and flip around the city.

But this peaceful period is short — shorter than the plaid schoolgirl skirt Megan Fox dons before partaking in a very Michael Bay-sian gratuitous slo-mo scene — because Shredder escapes police custody. He achieves this feat with the aid of a teleportation device built by Stockman under the direction of Krang, an alien that looks like a cross between a brain and a colonoscopy rendering and wants to annihilate planet Earth.

But none of the trio's motives match up. Shredder just wants out of jail. Stockman simply wants to be remembered as a genius, a visionary like Steve Jobs (there's line of dialogue comparing Jobs to the greatest minds of all time). And Krang wants to destroy the world. So why do Shredder and Stockman decide to team up with him, given that some part of their eventual dreams depends on Earth, well, existing? Nobody seems to care.

But their rationale doesn't really matter in the end, because while Shredder and Krang are the movie's two big bads, they're essentially non-entities, commanding a combined estimated screen time of 12 minutes. The Turtles spend more time in Out of the Shadows fighting amongst themselves about teamwork than they spend battling against any bad guys.

It's not that the Turtles' deep philosophical quandaries aren't valid. There's something interesting to be said about superheroes and the notion of fame and gratitude. There's also something intriguing about how physical appearance plays into the way we canonize superheroes — if they weren't so poreless and square-jawed, would we admire to them as much?

But Out of the Shadows only hints at these ideas, without seriously considering them.

The movie devotes a large amount of time to small cuts at these bigger themes, all wrapped around a subplot where the Turtles have the option to "reverse" their mutation and take human form. As for what kind of human form that would be, well, nobody is entirely sure, because didn't they just start out as turtles? There's nothing "human" to revert to. But again, nobody seems to care.

And all these shallow musings come at the expense of what makes the Turtles really great: the unabashed silliness and fun we've come to expect from the franchise. There's barely any pizza eating. There's one wry cowabunga. Scenes where the Turtles gratuitously beat up on bad guys are few and far between.

It's worth remembering that many elements of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were silly spins and spoofs of superhero staples. For example, the evil organization known as the Foot Clan in the Ninja Turtles universe was a play on the Hand, the villainous ninja organization in Marvel's Daredevil comic books and television series.

But that spoofy atmosphere is absent from Out of the Shadows. Instead, it conveys a sly, cynical feeling — a tacit assumption that we can't or won't enjoy the Turtles for being the silly, nonsense figures of the '90s that we once loved. And that's its biggest failure.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is playing in theaters across the country.