Let there be no mistake: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is not a good movie. It's damn near even a bad movie. And yet it might go down as the 2016 release that most soundly passed my expectations, on account of being a nigh-miraculous improvement in every respect I can think of over its predecessor. That being the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, second movie of that name, and launching point for the third big-screen series based on the TV cartoon based on the comic book about four teenage ninjas who are also mutant turtles. That movie was basically an artless Michael Bay film - a Michael Bay film only without the artistry, I repeat - and it was one of the worst films of its year, as well as one of the worst comic book movies I have seen. For Out of the Shadows to crawl up to the level of merely substandard, despite using all of the same ingredients in mostly the same way, is genuinely impressive. In truth, I cannot even think of the last sequel that improved this much over the original.

Given the number of returning personnel - screenwriters Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, virtually all of the cast members whose characters are back, cinematographer Lula Carvalho, and four out of the five producers, including Michael Bay himself - it's tempting and potentially even accurate to lay the credit for this development squarely at the feet of director Dave Green, brand new to the franchise, with his most significant prior credit being the 2014's Earth to Echo, a laughably shameless E.T. knock-off. And this is more germane than it might seem, because the most apparent reason that Out of the Shadows trounces its predecessor is that it has been retrofitted into being a kids' film. It is, out of what are now six theatrical TMNT features, the one that most directly taps into the tone of the 1987 television cartoon series that remains the primus inter pares of the Turtle franchise. And not just because it finally showcases the feature debut of fan-favorite characters Bebop the mutant warthog (Gary Anthony Williams), Rocksteady the mutant rhino (Irish-born WWE wrestler Stephen "Sheamus" Farrelly), and Krang the genocidal brain-in-a-robot-suit (Brad Garrett), though their presence is undoubtedly a tell.

The action kicks in a year after the ponderous noise that ended the last movie, with teenage mutant ninja turtles Leo (Pete Ploszek, taking over voice duties in addition to returning for motion-capture), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) unable to bask in the adulation of a grateful New York City, since they've decided to protect their identities by handing all the credit to unctuous news cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). But evil continues to thrive in the dark places of the city, and the turtles' best friend and link to the outside world, ace reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) is onto something big: genius scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) is plotting to break notorious ninja villain Shredder (Brian Tee) out of prison. The turtles aren't quite able to stop him, but their intervention causes things to go awry: Stockman's teleportation device sends Shredder to an alternate dimension, where he meets Krang and cuts a deal with the creature to help build an even bigger teleportation device so that Krang can take over the whole world, with Shredder as his second in command. Step one is for the turtles, aided by April and disgraced NYPD officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) to try to prevent Shredder, and his new henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady, from collecting the parts to the device; step two, once they've failed, is to punch everybody back into through the rift in the space-time continuum, in a truly dreadful climactic setpiece that is much, much too visually similar to the dreadful climactic setpiece from the last film.

The plot is a hasty sketch, rushed through with great indifference - the scene where Krang outlines his plot to Shredder, the crux of the entire movie, is blitzed through so urgently that it's barely even registered that we've just watched a giant damn brain with sharp teeth riding a mecha before we're already two scenes away - and the character arcs are lazy boilerplate (Leonardo is tired of Raphael being a sullen jerk, while Michelangelo is tired of having to hide away like beasts, while Donatello doesn't even have a smidgen of personality, except insofar as "wears glasses and uses big words" is one of the most reliable personalities in children's entertainment). And yet, Green still treats the material in a kind of respectable way, letting scenes develop at a relatively lingering pace through relatively long shots, and not hastening through moments like he's got a high-priced hooker to snort cocaine off of. Those "relativelys" are doing an unfair amount of work: Out of the Shadows is still cut like a manic episode, particularly the action sequences, which are by and large the worst part of the movie. Though even then, you can mostly tell where each shot takes place relative to the others, and Green (or at least editors Bob Ducsay and Jim May, and I suppose probably the second unit) aren't afraid to take a few seconds to hide a character beat or gag in the middle of the action, shifting up the flow enough that it doesn't become hypnotically boring.

It's so much more chipper than one expects from the leftover elements of the Michael Bay house style, such as random speed-ramping, and a profoundly stupid excuse to put Fox in a skimpy outfit in the film's early moments. Generally, when these things show up, it feels like they've been wedged in just to get them out of the way, so the film can return as quickly as possible to its primary goal of dumb humor (almost always centered on Michelangelo), and cautiously violence-free action, with a studied attempt to make sure that none of the bad guys ever die that resembles, well, an '80s cartoon. It is a goofy movie, and not by accident. Nor, entirely, is the goofiness unsuccessful: Perry's performance as Baxter Stockman is shockingly good, with exactly the right level of childish glee for us to buy him as an ebullient scientific genius who doesn't think through the consequences of his actions, and enough pathetic horndog leering at Fox that we can also buy him as an antisocial creep. Not all of the lightweight new characters fare so well: Amell slips right of the screen as Casey Jones, and Laura Linney, in her short appearance as a high-level NYPD fixer, gives a performance so rotten with unconscionably dragged-out, mis-stressed line readings that I have to assume she was going for plummy camp, and missed. And the jokes are, for the most part, exceedingly terrible. Part of the reason we can tell that the filmmakers were aiming at children is because of how childish are all the lines and actions given to Michelangelo, our comic relief and the closest the film comes to a consistent audience identification character.

And yet, none of it is painful, and at least a couple of things genuinely work: Krang is delightfully designed and well-executed - the film's CGI is strong throughout, though the turtles themselves are still simply ugly - and there's a tossed-in Transformers gag that involves a more appealing Transformer transformation than anything Bay has managed to work into his actual Transformers feature. None of this means that the film does much of anything or has any real meat on its bones, and other than Perry's wacky Stockman, there's nothing in here that I'd actually call worth the effort to see it. Still, the fact that this isn't much, much worse astounds me, and it's not like this is the worst of the tedious, unfunny kids' movies of 2016.