On Out of the Shadows, weirdness and risk-aversion in the age of the franchise model
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows Paramount Pictures
Director: Dave Green
Screenplay: Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, based on characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman
Starring: Megan Fox, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Alan Ritchson, Laura Linney, Brian Tee, Pete Ploszek, Gary Anthony Williams, Sheamus, Tony Shalhoub and Tyler Perry
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
June 3, 2016
(out of four)
Imagine going into a pitch meeting, in circa-2016 Hollywood, and presenting your original idea for a brand-new motion picture. A potential franchise, even, but you don't want to get ahead of yourself. Your original idea and potential franchise is about a group of four crimefighting human-sized turtles who live in a sewer, eat pizza, study Eastern philosophy, and use their expertise in martial arts and ninja tradecraft to wage covert war on, like, the samurai mafia. And maybe some aliens. Also there's a giant rat. And some references to the Italian Renaissance. And a foxy reporter maybe?
That a movie fitting this exact description exists in the current marketplace - and on a scale of $135 million - reveals the inherent paradox of the system. 1) It is built on movies like this. 2) It would never greenlight a movie like this.
So many of the films that drive the current tentpole business model are rooted in exactly this kind of weirdness. Bizarre, ridiculous-sounding ideas. Eccentric sensibilities. Crazy risks. Or more to the point, it is built specifically on niche. Star Wars was a goofy, wildly idiosyncratic failure waiting to happen. Lord of the Rings was a fantasy nerd project made by a guy who specialized in disreputable horror-comedy; it had financial catastrophe written all over it. Superhero comics were cheap, oddball trifles, often laden with singularly peculiar ideas and impulses. And even though comics had become standard mainstream pop culture by the 21st Century, even the vaunted Marvel machine was kickstarted by a massive risk: a superhero with little mainstream recognizability, toplined by an infamous actor who, at the time, had no track record as someone who could open a blockbuster movie.
The weirdness and the risks (like Iron Man and RDJ) pay off and become part of - if not the face of - a system that is aggressively anti-weird, anti-risk. My matter-of-fact description of the basic premise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not done in mockery, but to point out how ludicrously uncommercial it would sound if presented to a studio executive divorced from any existing brand recognition.
Don't get me wrong - I get the business logic of it. Easier to exploit a proven brand than take a chance on something new, something strange. But my question is whether a studio would even recognize a weird idea that had the potential to strike big. TMNT, whatever you think of any of its many incarnations, obviously had the capacity to become a household name. I mean, we're now six feature films in. But if this franchise didn't exist already, and someone shopped the idea around, Paramount certainly wouldn't bring it into existence.
Then again, I suppose the flip side is that the franchise model can take fundamentally unusual concepts and streamline them to death. Which is what seems to be the case with the latest entry in this series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, which from a distance is nearly indistinguishable - in the way it looks, feels, behaves - from a thousand other summer movies before it and a thousand more that'll come after. Look closer and you'll see a bit of that lingering eccentricity, but for the most part that's all been sanded down. You could pretty much swap out the turtles for a group of superheroes or robots or wizards and this would more or less be the same movie. The special effects, the Michael Bay for Kids aesthetics, the Manhattan setting*, the flavorless pre-viz'd action ... those things are the cart driving this particular horse. The Turtles are seemingly only there because the movie needs something, anything, to revolve around.
* At this point, movies like this might as well just share all the same New York City backdrop and overhead shots and save themselves the cost of location shooting. They all look the same anyway.
Technically, this type of cynical formula filmmaking can work if you have the right personality out in front. But these CGI Turtles (and the CGI is better than it was in the previous movie, for the record) really aren't much, as cinematic protagonists or crimefighting heroes go. We see the same dynamics we expect from these four - the same dynamics and personalities I grew up on, as if that matters - with little variance and little of interest. Leonardo still sucks, is what I'm saying. But nothing in Out of the Shadows makes the Turtles, either as a group or as individuals, any more relevant or useful as characters. (That's kinda one of the problems with having four CGI animals as your main characters. With another type of franchise, an actor could come up with his or her own interpretation, even if it was just a slight wrinkle here or there.)
But worse, and more to the point, is that there's nothing offbeat or strange about this world, aside from the basic nuts-and-bolts of the premise that by now we've taken for granted. We get the occasional attempt at self-awareness - basically a recurring "Yo, isn't it totally weird that we're turtles?" commentary - but that only underscores how perfectly tame the film is. A major subplot involves an ethical debate amongst the Turtles about whether to use a mutagen that would physically turn them into humans, allowing them to finally emerge ... ahem ... out of the shadows. A couple of them argue in favor of it. Let's be normal! Which is a fitting-enough reflection of the filmmakers' approach to this fundamentally odd material. Let's be normal. The movie's plot also involves (sigh) a portal to another dimension. Maybe somewhere in that dimension is a movie with a little personality of its own.