Rare is the sequel that improves substantially upon its predecessor; rarer still is a genuinely great sequel to a movie that wasn’t very good at all. Though it was a financial success, tied as it was to a cash-cow brand that has never really gone away, 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sought to reinvent the property without apparently understanding what the appeal was in the first place. The redesigned turtles looked creepy, and Michelangelo’s cross-species crush on Megan Fox was even creepier; meanwhile, the obvious last-minute rewrites to correct a controversial “white-wash” of arch-villain Shredder (who was to be played by William Fichtner, until he wasn’t) made the plot feel confused and disjointed. That guru-rat Master Splinter learned ninjutsu from a book he found in the sewer was just one of many silly additions that could have been corrected with a decent edit.
The redesigned Turtles still look weird, but director Dave Green (Earth to Echo) has spun nostalgic gold from cinematic straw, like a Rumpelstiltskin of childhood restored. These are the Turtles you’ve been looking for; as with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the franchise has course-corrected back to where it should have just began in the first place. When brain-alien Krang appears following the movie’s first big action set piece, and begins loudly and dramatically proclaiming to Shredder that he plans to tear open a rift between dimensions and rule the world—and making his robot body punch himself in the face in order to squeeze him back inside the metal stomach cavity—the movie offers this up unapologetically, and it’s the right call. Though some versions of the Turtles over the years have been grittier than others, they were always intended to have a healthy dose of weirdness and parody, and making things too “realistic” misses the point. The very notion of teenage mutant ninja turtles is absurd, and nobody telling stories about them should be in any way embarrassed about that fact.
Out of the Shadows also functions as a loose remake of the original movie sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, which hinged on the creation of two new evil mutants that could not at the time legally be called Bebop and Rocksteady. Now the contracts are all straightened out and the goofy baddies can wield their proper names. As played by Gary Anthony Williams (Uncle Ruckus on The Boondocks) and Stephen Farrelly (WWE‘s Sheamus), they’re a highlight, both as aggressively stupid humans and post-mutation animals. When Farrelly loudly proclaims, in his Irish accent, that he’s Finnish, he does so with such dunderheaded conviction that it’s up there with the best of Beavis and Butt-head. Meanwhile, as mad scientist Baxter Stockman, Tyler Perry mainly just acts like a dork as broadly as possible, but he’ll presumably have more to do in the next movie.
While the main plot features Shredder escaping prison, acquiring new technology, and forming an alliance with Krang to conquer the world, those Turtle boys are having their own issues: mainly, that they have to stay hidden and working in the shadows while blowhard ex-cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) takes all the credit for their heroics from the prior film. Offered a potential anti-mutagen that could turn them human, the gang divides on how to proceed, with Raphael and Mikey taking the emotional point of view (rooted in their feelings that they’d like to not be seen as monsters) and Leo and Don taking a more pragmatic approach. The intra-reptile drama adds just the right amount of complication—any more and the story might get too crowded from all the characters (we haven’t even mentioned Casey Jones yet!). Any less and it would feel like nobody cared about plot much.
But while the drama may threaten to tear the team apart, the dialogue and easy banter of the actors feels true to the material in the best way. Raphael is cool but rude! Donatello does do machines! Et cetera. Forgotten the theme song lyrics? Don’t worry. There’s a modern cover version over the end credits to remind you, with a healthy dose of “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go!” sprinkled in. Yes, this time around the small details are actually smart, from familiar cartoon Turtle art on April O’Neil’s hologram watch to ninja stars encircling the Paramount logo at the beginning of the film. It’s quickly apparent, unlike last time, that you are watching a movie made by and for fans. Sure, Stephen Amell‘s Casey Jones feels so childlike as to almost come off idiotic, and Megan Fox is no master thespian. Yet none of that matters—the Turtles themselves (Noel Fisher, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, and Pete Ploszek) are great, and the action sequences are both funny and exciting, particularly an extended skydive-turned-river-chase through Brazil. Heck, Ploszek wasn’t even overdubbed by Johnny Knoxville this time as Leonardo, yet he sounds exactly like him.
To quote Stephen Farrelly from his day job: this movie just brogue-kicked me arse, fella. I can’t quite give it a perfect score, because those nostrils on the Turtles just still make me a little uncomfortable, but 4.5 burritos out of 5 ain’t bad. Cowabunga.
Luke Y. Thompson is weekend editor at Nerdist, a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and other fun stuff. Plus he has a Twitter.