Let's be honest right off the bat. It's no secret that Michael Bay's first foray into this extremely well-loved franchise in 2014 was...a disappointment. When news of a non-Japanese Shredder and turtle-like aliens (rather than mutants) buzzed across the internet, the lash-out from the fans was enough to make Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman scrambling to change their original (crappy) vision to better suit the Ninja Turtle mythology, though there were some tongue-in-cheek references to the original ideas. This left us with a hodgepodge of a movie, with a fractured plot (they had apparently already paid William Fichtner to be a villain so can't cut him now!) and a relatively low amount of screentime for the title characters. It was a movie about Megan Fox's April O'Neil, who, while an important character in any TMNT story, should simply not be the focus.
The film's sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, is a clear indicator that this team finally has its poop in a group. This is a film for the fans, and not some radical "What If?" fanfiction-gone-wrong like the last one was trying to be. It has the same fun Easter eggs and references to the older series' like the previous movie and its' currently-running television series counterpart on Nickelodeon, but the characters all drew from the source materials, and we got to see some of the characters we knew and loved growing up. The focus returned to the turtles, where it belonged, and we got to see their personalities in more than just quips and easy gags. Bebop and Rocksteady were the bumbling brute forces of the '87 cartoon, all terrifying power and humorous lack of intelligence. Shredder is no longer a freakin' Decepticon. All is as it should be.
There were some changes in actors. Tohoru Masamune has been replaced by Brian Tee as Shredder, however, the difference is all but visual; both actors carry the terrifying, violent demeanor to play the iconic villain well. Shredder's right-hand woman, Karai, is now played by Brittany Ishibashi, portraying the character much closer to the capable warrior we see in other versions of TMNT than Minae Noji's guerrilla-esque portrayal in the first film. Possibly the least obvious change is the casting of Leonardo; he is voiced this time by his motion-capture actor Pete Ploszek, like the rest of the turtles, instead of bringing back Johnny Knoxville (to Knoxville's credit, he did all right, but Ploszek's voice is perfect for the "great leader" of the turtles.
And now, the bad news. The plot was really a fractured mess. Classic TMNT villian Krang was introduced in this film; and by introduced, I mean shoved in dry without any kind of set-up or explanation. We go from Shredder making his grand return to power, to him all of a sudden being in another dimension making a deal with this disembodied talking brain like that's something Oroku Saki just does on the regular, NBD. The entire Krang plot arc was handled like an afterthought, as if they remembered that hey, movie-goers like having a story and maybe a battle or something in their action flicks, and they added him in with a sticky note that ended with "YOLO."
The film also introduced fan favorite Casey Jones, played by the talented and perfect human specimen Stephen Amell. While there were some BA moves on Amell's part, I felt like this Casey fell flat. Too noble, to good, not quite enough of that cocky, slightly chauvinist Casey we fell in love with in the original 90's film, not the immature show-off from the 2012 cartoon series. He wasn't that neutral-good vigilante he should be; he was an off-duty cop. I'd put the blame more on the writers than Amell, though, since there were glimpses of that Casey here and there.
One thing I do have to commend the filmmakers on, however, is Fox' April. I know what people say. she's eye candy and that's it. But that's not it. Fox's April O'Neil is the most believable character in this film. She's brave and driven to the point of putting herself in danger in order to get her story or help her friends. And the film does her a favor by keeping her "normal" and not morphing her into a deadly fighter overnight like some heroines in sequels (lookin' at you, Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). Does she use her looks to her advantage? Sure. Of course she does. And she would be stupid not to. A pretty face and great body can be a weapon within themselves. You wouldn't ask one of the turtles to not use their shells as protection, why would you ask April O'Neil not to use her charms to her advantage? Ultimately, Fox's April maintains the characters' legacy as a maternal figure and friend to the turtles as well as a brave ally, so anyone who spits on Fox's portrayal could probably afford to brush up on the character's history.
I also have to hand it to the film for actually having some character development in the turtles. In the first film, it was completely black-and-white: Leo was the fearless leader, Raph was a brooding hothead, Donnie was an awkward nerd, and Mikey was an air-brained party-boy. This time, we see actual dimensional characters. Leonardo's stubbornness and need to maintain control begins to cause his brothers to lose faith in him. Donatello is a much more confident figure now, more wisecracks and more of the Donatello we've seen in previous incarnations. Raphael's passion and protective nature, his emotional impulsiveness is now present, so he's not just a looming emo pile of muscle. The film plays on his always-present sensitivity towards his differentness from society, and the anger it causes him, actually gets to be played upon. And Michelangelo, sweet, precious cinnamon roll Mikey; we see the toll his differentness takes on him, easily the most emotionally sensitive of the brothers, as his shock and hurt reads all over his CGI'd face when he and his brothers are called "monsters." You actually get to see multiple facets of their personalities. Novel.
Ultimately, I give this film 6/10 on the Poodle Scale. It's a fun flick and it's clearly made for the fans this time around. I'd say it'll be really confusing for anyone who hasn't been following TMNT for a while (heck, even a superfan like myself was thrown off entirely by Krang's sudden appearance). Not the best TMNT film thus far, but a fun, nostalgic ride for anyone who loves the four heroes in a halfshell.