Can we all just acknowledge that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a inherently ridiculous concept? Somewhere amidst all the movies, cartoons, merchandising, Vanilla Ice songs, and nostalgia, the fact that TMNT was originally conceived as a parody of superheroes (specifically a darkly smirking riff on Daredevil) has been lost in the shuffle. So when it comes to the latest iteration of the superhero foursome, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the question of critical perspective comes to mind. How should these movies be judged? After all, the fact that these movies even exist is ludicrous - and that’s before the killer brain shows up.

When evaluating “kids’ movies” – and Out of the Shadows, despite its PG-13 rating, is marketing itself to kids – there is always a bit of push and pull. Is it realistic to expect an intricately plotted Robert Towne-esque tale of corruption in New York, headlined by humanoid turtles? Of course not. But the least I can ask of any movie is a script that gives the whole ‘story’ thing a shot - and this is where Out of the Shadows falls woefully short. It is almost universally acknowledged that the Turtles themselves were the least problematic element of 2014’s TMNT reboot. Instead, the film was bogged down by the same leaden dialogue and poor characterization that has plagued so many summer blockbusters over the years. Here, instead of listening to criticism and crafting a better storyline, returning writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec seem even more content to let the mere presence of familiar characters do the talking, without worrying about any of the actual talking.

The most frustrating part of Out of the Shadows is that all of the elements of a far more successful movie than the first TMNT are there, ripe for the picking. Gone are the woefully misguided changes to the characters’ origins, the painful “comedic” scenes between the human characters, the bizarrely large focus on April O’Neil (Megan Fox), and the overwrought plot machinations. Instead, the focus rightly turns to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael – and once again, their dynamics are perfectly matched to what we know and love of the Turtles. Throw in fan-favorites Bebop and Rocksteady, the birth of an unholy alliance between Shredder and the evil talking brain Krang, and the emergence of Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) to join the crime fighting team, and this movie should be a rousing success. Right?

Unfortunately, Out of the Shadows struggles to match the quality of its predecessor, and that’s not a compliment. Not to say the film fails for lack of trying; the action scenes are dynamic, and the rapport between the Turtles is amusing. But the script can’t seem to bother with things like an engaging plot or a series of events that unfold in a cohesive manner, or even setting things up in a way that doesn’t hinge on a character delivering massive exposition dumps to the audience. It doesn't have strong villains to carry it either, as Krang pops up sporadically in the first and third acts, while Shredder is wasted yet again, relegated to being a glorified extra.

I can already hear the cries and eye rolls cascading through the internet: “But Dan, you’re being too cynical. I’m sorry this children’s movie doesn’t conform to your idea of what good story structure is.” To that I say: this is how we end up in a world where Transformers: Age of Extinction exists. Plot and character aren’t things that should only be expected from “grown-up” movies; they’re to be expected from all movies. Out of the Shadows isn’t bad because it has a simplistic plot; it’s bad because it’s written poorly, I suspect, becasue the people in charge didn’t feel the need to emulate smarter "kids films" like Inside Out, The Iron Giant, Big Hero 6, the Harry Potter franchise - and any number of other movies that decided not to treat kids like mindless automatons. No matter its intended audience, a movie needs coherent structure and engaging dialogue, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows provides neither. 

Am I the intended audience for this movie? No, even though my generation loves to claim ownership of the Turtles - often struggling to keep a new generation of kids from wresting control. Will kids enjoy Out of the Shadows? Maybe, though it won’t challenge them in any meaningful way. I could easily dismiss the movie’s problems with a hand wave, deeming it 'good enough for kids.' But movies should be graded on merit, not on a curve, and despite its intended audience, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows remains a poorly-written, shapeless mess, punctuated by the occasionally entertaining action sequence. I was rooting for this movie, and I still believe that the next one could be both goofy and well-crafted. I just wish the people making these movies shared the same belief.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is now in theaters. It is 112 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

Be sure to catch our Screen Junkies FULL SPOILER REVIEW of TMNT:OotS on the next episode of Summer Movie Report with Dan Murrell! Mondays LIVE only on Screen Junkies Plus!

Grade: C-