Movie Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has always had a rocky history in pop culture adaptations, most of the time we tend to put on some thick nostalgia glasses when thinking of the original 90s film and cartoon since it wasn’t without its faults, but what do you expect when you’re dealing with the adaptation of a comic about giant mutant turtles that are ninja taught by their rat sensei who learned ninjutsu by watching his owner Hamato Yoshi* practicing the martial art. So every time there’s a new cartoon/comic/toy line/video game/movie there’s bound to be some liberties taken and it’s with that notion that I decided to go with the most open of mentalities into the new TMNT movie, yes I’ve seen the trailers and they did nothing to me, yes I’ve seen the redesigns and they’re ugly as crap, yes Michael Bay is involved and it’s not looking good, yes I’ve seen what they did to Transformers but new generations love it. So I open my mind as wide as I can and I will give this new version a chance, it can’t be as bad as their Coming Out Of Their Shells Tour and I will try not to let my love for early 90s turtles cloud my judgement.
Let’s begin with April O’Neal, one of those elements that seem to change from every TMNT iteration, she started as a lab assistant, then was a news reporter, in the newest cartoon she’s a teenager herself dealing with school, teenagers (some of them turtles) and her own love of pizza. In the movie she’s once again a reporter, albeit one who only gets fluff stories handed to her as she yearns for more. The first red flag that popped up was when Megan Fox was announced to play her, an out of the blue choice which probably came about because of eye candiness. I have never been a fan of Ms. Fox but fortunately she manages to handle her role with enough grace to sustain her scenes, the unfortunate part of this is that they rely too much on April to carry the movie, it basically starts and ends with her. Her introduction was all about her wanting to be in the news reporter big leagues, a plot point which never gets resolved. Sure, it sort of takes you to her meeting the turtles for the first time but we forget the whole news thing even happened and makes me think so much could have been trimmed to save us from several pointless and boring talky talky human scenes. Speaking of, why is Whoopi Goldberg even in here? Her role can’t be considered a cameo nor you can say she adds anything to the story. She either owed the creators something or she’s truly desperate for money**, her and Will Arnett’s roles could have been fuzed together into one and it could have smoothly moved things along. We already have to deal with so much focus on April to loose time on her boss. April tends to move the plot along but like I mentioned the story depends too much on her character. I’m all up for girl power moments where the so called damsel in distress can hold her own and manage to kick butt now and again but this is The Teenage Mutant Ninja Movie movie, not the Adult Wannabe Reporter April who joins some inconsequential turtles movie. Granted Megan Fox does a decent job of handling her scenes, sure it wasn’t a big thespian challenge but this could have gone into annoying territory so easily, I was worried that would be the case but I’m happy to report that she avoided making me roll my eyes, what she didn’t avoid is boring the hell out of me the majority of times where we’re sans turtles. The worst part is when they decided to involve her in the turtles origins.
We avoided a direct correlation that the turtles were from space, when the whole alien debacle came out it was clear that at the very least what the fans wanted to be respected was the fact that they were turtles, they were ninja, they were teenagers and of course they were mutants, so sure, they may not have arrived from outer space but their origin story probably became even worse, that’s the one time I could not hold on to my open mindedness and let out a loud groan, without spoiling it too much I’m sure O’Neal’s involvement will make any fan have a nerdrage outburst. In fairness we don’t have a pet rat who learns ninjutsu from his master but I kind of wish we had, the timeline is all wonky, every character’s actions are super random and convenient. I’m sorry, I’m trying not to let my childhood obsessions phase me but this is just so dense and vapid. Their worst offense is what they did to Splinter, you no longer have a calm and wise master, you have a dull rat that decided to learn ninjutsu from a book, who has an anti sensei demeanor, who’s super gross and doesn’t offer anything aside from the obligatory dramatic pauses for his 4 turtle children. Well of course he’s super gross, have you seen a rat lately? But c’mon! Creators have the liberties to make something more visually appealing, not everything has to be grounded in reality, we’re talking about giant ninja turtles here.
The turtles design have been the biggest complaint for this movie since the previews and I reiterate that it could have been more visually appealing, we could have been seeing some more inviting, friendlier turtles (and Splinter), but no, they had to be hyper realistic, towering, bulletproof turtles, but there’s nothing we can do. Their hideousness does provide some chuckles here and there (basically what you saw in the trailers). I can’t say they grew on me but at least they’re not obtrusive, getting over their appearances I can admit the effects are top notch, at one point I forgot I was watching CGI creations and decided to roll with it and watch them interact with real life allies and enemies. This is their movie after all and hey, at least they get to use their weapons this time! We do get to see the turtles kicking but and cracking jokes, at least they’re trying to remain true to the turtles personalities and a bit of what makes the characters memorable. Of course they’re turtles, yes we see them learning ninjutsu, at the very least Mikey tends to act like a teenager and we know they’re mutants via some throwaway lines. April even calls them Ninja Mutant Turtle Teenagers as a wink to the camera metajoke. Yes Leonardo is still the leader, Raphael is all emo tough guy, Donnatello is a nerd and wears glasses and Michaelangelo is a party dude. Raph and Mikey’s attitudes are the most prevalent, the first is always brooding and wants to brashly hit everything in his path, the other is all about the pizza and a carefree attitude. If there’s an enjoyment factor in TMNT it’s because of Mikey, he steals most of the show and provides some much needed comic relief. The rest of the turtles do have their moments but the problem here is that there’s not much room to flesh them out, we know Leo is the leader because he says “let’s go” like one time, and we know Raph doesn’t like it because he fights about it, we know Donnie is smart because he has glasses and can hack a computer but most of their traits are evident because we already knew about them before this movie! Part of their justification about the turtle redesign was due to each turtle’s idiosyncrasy but what’s the point when you’re not even going to explore the characters, although considering what they have done with the source material maybe it was best that they didn’t explore further. Let’s stick to them kicking shell.
Aside from a couple of Mikey one liners (and a couple from Will Arnett just being Will Arnett) the most redeeming factor and the main reason one could enjoy this movie is the action. The turtles, when found fighting, pull off some sweet ninja skills, even Splinter, as much as he sucks as a characters, kicks major ass when fighting and it’s cool because he gets to use his tail in clever ways, there’s a scene amid snowy mountain tops where each turtle gets to shine using his katana, bo staff, sais and nunchucks as well as their shells. The risks are high, the action fast paced, it’s truly exciting. It’s the one scene that almost managed to save the film, unfortunately we still had the big boss fight left as well as the abrupt ending to finish it off.
So far, taking into account the misjudged handling of our heroes, the comedy and the action elements the film could fall slightly above being mediocre but then there’s the overall plot and our villains. A minefield of cliches including a monologue about their dastardly plan, a weak final fight on the top of a skyscraper, a get rich quick scheme and William Fichtner. Seriously movie people, if you see Fichtner you should already know he’s up to no good***. All that’s missing is some maniacal laughter. The worst part is that it’s all so superfluous, Shredder is just there to shred, because, evil? He definitely wins the prize for worst character adapted but hey, at least Will Arnett can have a heroic moment right?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) is a lazy and boring adaptation that rarely gets saved by a pair of cool action set pieces and a couple of chuckles here and there. It gets bogged down by an over-kinetic style (the Transformers effect) with non stop camera movements and a million cuts where they leave no breathing room to flesh out the characters or the plot. Most of the time I was day dreaming about watching the new Nickelodeon cartoon which brings a new and modern take along with preexisting elements on these beloved characters. It manages to kick ass and make you laugh just as the Ninja Turtles are supposed to, we don’t have to give it a chance, it’s all right there the moment the main theme comes on, so if you need a modern turtles fix you’re better off with the TV series, this new movie is for those curious enough to see what they did right and how much of it wrong. They don’t quite destroy your childhood but it just seems they had the tools to create something a lot more memorable but they didn’t take advantage of them.
*FYI: There’s no mention of Hamato Yoshi whatsoever in the movie.
**I was truly curious about this, turns out Whoopi has always wanted to do a “Turtles” movie since her daughter was young (even though now her daughter has a daughter of her own, hope she likes TMNT …or rather, hope she doesn’t).
***This is not a spoiler, it’s in the goddam trailer, a spoiler would be (SPOILER ALERT) saying that Fitchner is not The Shredder, I was worried they’d pull a Ra’s al Ghul but after seeing the movie I kind of wish they had.