August 8, 2014
First a disclosure: I grew up on the 1987 cartoon that the Turtles are most famous for. My favorite was Donatello – not for the Bo or how he rocked purple – because he favored brains over brawn to solve problems. I’ve seen every live-action film in theaters and had a date night with TMNT in 2007. I regularly listen to the original 1990 soundtrack and will put on “Ninja Rap” for giggles now and again. In short, I have a vested interest in the success of this film.
Not since 2007, with the animated TMNT, have Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and the rest of the gang graced the silver screen. Virtually everyone knows who the Turtles are and can name their favorite, whether from their birth in 1984 as a comic book series or their reconception as a wildly popular cartoon that ran from ’87-’96 or from the first live action iteration in 1990. Unfortunately, despite their place in the pop culture zeitgeist, they have not always had strong successes in film. In fact, an early draft of the script was leaked 2012 and the internet went insane with outrage, resulting in an immediate shutdown in production. That script was thoroughly retooled into the Michael Bay produced, Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans & Battle Los Angeles) directed feature opening today.
As the story begins, Shredder and the Foot Clan are terrorizing New York City, brazenly attacking civilians and businesses, even in daylight. Our heroes, thinking themselves ready to join the surface world, decide to take a stand and fight back against the Foot to remove their hold on the city. During a Foot Clan attack, our heroes on the half shell inadvertently rescue April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a fluff reporter trying to get herself taken seriously, who catches them on camera. Thus begins their on-screen adventure to team-up to stop Shredder’s nefarious plan to take over NYC.
Let’s begin with the good stuff. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is chock full of easter eggs for the older fans in the audience. There’s the iconic yellow jacket Megan Fox wears as the stand-in for April’s tracksuit – a reasonable replacement – and, of course, Channel 6 News. Don’t forget April’s loyal cameraman, Vernon Fenwick, played for laughs by the slightly lecherous Will Arnett. Then there’s the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it reference to Miyamoto Uasgi, a visual nod to the original opening to the 1987 cartoon, TGRI scrawled on a ooze container, and a very subtle appearance by Baxter Stockman. I won’t lie – when I heard Shredder say, “Tonight I dine on turtle soup,” I couldn’t help but fanboy a bit.
Don’t worry, these references – and the ones I didn’t mention – aren’t the only good things about the movie. The Turtles have been updated to each have a more unique look that highlights their individual personalities, which shine through clearly: Leo is still the tense leader; Don the brainiac; Micky the child; and Ralph is still angry. Where this movie succeeds is the focus on the four, not as warriors, but as brothers and how they compliment and support one another. With this as the focus, it feels like a Turtles movie. The humor and silliness we’ve come to expect since ’87 really shines through, leading to one of my favorite scenes when the Turtles go for an elevator ride.
Unfortunately, there are still a large number of shortcomings that can’t be saved by nostalgia or humor. Starting with character focus, much of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is focused on April. While she is an integral member of the team, her story should not supersede that of the Turtles. Why do we need to follow her for over 20 minutes before we even see the Turtles? Why do we need to know that her father worked with William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks and died in his employ? While Liebesman’s cinematic through-line of April’s growth journey is more-or-less solid, why does this matter in a story about giant weapon-slinging turtles? What does her coming to terms with and gaining closure on the death of her father have anything to do with the story of the Turtles? Yes, it is connected, but it’s not necessary. In fact, we could have had the same story, but with the primary focus being on the Turtles who meet April right as they uncover the Foot’s master plan. I wasn’t the only one to notice the extreme lack of ninja turtles in the movie because when the Turtles finally arrived on screen, a young attendee at my screening put it best when he exclaimed, “Finally!”
Though I did enjoy that bonding moment with my fellow movie-goer, I found myself concerned about the stylized violence being depicted on screen. In the original comic, the Turtles were vicious. They are ninjas, after all, and come to battle with weapons meant to immobilize or kill. Much of this was removed in the cartoon by making the Foot Clan members robots, so the dismantling of the bad guys was less gruesome. In the ‘90s films, the Foot Clan were real people, but even then, the Turtles stunned or knocked out their opponents. In a Michael Bay-produced Turtles movie, they kill once more. As seen in the trailer, one member of the Foot is thrown through the window of a moving subway car. Later, during a mountain chase scene, whose geography seems both impossible due to the time of year (Spring) and proximity to NYC, a Foot member is thrown from a speeding vehicle into a tree. On purpose. Not to mention the many Foot members who get killed by their own bullets which are carefully ricocheted off the Turtles’ shells. I do appreciate that there is an underlying message of those that seek to do others harm may have harm come to them; a less fancy version of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” if you will. But that’s not what the audience sees. They see the Turtles fighting (for their lives, sure) and enjoying the mayhem and making jokes out of the entire experience. Do the Turtles recognize and acknowledge the danger they’re in? Yes, but they seem to take an odd gleeful pleasure out of their victories that previous iterations since the comic never did.
While there are aspects that make this film fun for old fans, these Turtles belong to the next generation. It has some interesting action sequences, a few good jokes, and an interesting take on the origin story going for it. Sadly, I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for those who want to see the boys kicking butt on the big screen. Some sequences are worth seeing in the theater – like the snow mountain chase highlighted in the trailers or the final Shredder battle at the denouement – otherwise, I recommend a matinee or waiting for it to hit your local discount theater.
Available in theaters nationwide starting Friday, August 8th.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5