So there’s a new live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters right now. You’d think I’d be overjoyed. Or maybe you’d think I’d be livid. The truth is much more disappointing. I just can’t bring myself to care. My friends have tried egging me into rants with leading questions like, “So, have you seen the new Turtles trailer? Is it true the TMNT are gonna be aliens? Did you know Michael Bay’s making a TMNT movie? Eh? Eh? EH?” I think I got poked with a stick enough that I went numb, because that’s certainly how I felt both before and after I left the theater.
I suppose the saving grace is that for a fan of the Ninja Turtles, it’s not like this movie is the only new thing out there right now. IDW has two ongoing comic books plus a rotating selection of miniseries to read. Nickelodeon has a stop-go animated series that’d be pretty good if it didn’t take month-long breaks every two or three episodes. There are toys. There’s merch. There are rereleases of all the old stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s lining book shelves and DVD bins. It’s hard to get excited or angry about the potential quality of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie when there are so many options out there.
But after two establishing paragraphs, I’ll get down to business: This was a stupid movie and it wasn’t very good. I’m not ANGRY because it was a stupid movie and it wasn’t very good. I can always go read the comics or watch the cartoons to get my contemporary Turtle fix and banish all thoughts of this film from my mind. But it was stupid. And it wasn’t very good.
The plot in a nutshell is that the corporate businessman Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) has teamed up with the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his sinister paramilitary Foot Clan. Their scheme is to unleash a devastating virus upon New York City and then sell a pre-fabricated antidote to the Government, thereby becoming billionaires and “taking over the city” (what they hope to gain by physically taking over New York is never really elaborated upon). The key to bringing their plot to life are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their master Splinter, who were part of the genetic experiment and the mutagen in their blood is the last ingredient necessary. Along for the ride are news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and her dorky sidekick Verne Fenwick (Will Arnett); and at least in April’s case, she has a deeper connection to the Turtles than anybody knows.
This new TMNT film from Director Jonathan Liebesman is very much indebted to the 1987 cartoon series produced by Fred Wolf. It takes the majority of its cues from that show, so if you’ve ever wanted to see a big budget blockbuster Ninja Turtles movie based on the ‘80s cartoon without any of that icky Mirage Comics stuff getting in the way, then you may want to take notice. The connection is mostly superficial, though; there are references to catchphrases from the cartoon (“Tonight, I dine on turtle soup”, “Heroes on a half-shell”, etc.), cartoon-only characters populate the cast (Verne/Vernon as mentioned, but Whoopi Goldberg also plays a female version of Burne Thompson), April’s a news reporter rather than a scientist/antique dealer, the pizza jokes are relentless, and the Turtles all act like a bunch of spastic, comedic goofballs that can’t take anything seriously for more than five seconds.
No Technodrome, Bebop and Rocksteady or Flush-o-Matic torture-toilet playset, though. So don’t get too excited.
I guess we can start with the Turtles. They’re all very… annoying. The writing for the characters is humorous to the extreme (while rarely being funny) and the attempts at anything approaching drama or that nebulous quality known as “heart” fall flat thanks to an immediate derailing into one-liner territory. For example, the Turtles get taken prisoner in the middle of the movie and Raphael has to go it alone to save them. But while HE may be going through a crisis, everything AROUND him is still constantly being played for laughs. It’s hard to get in tune with Raph’s anxiety and fear when Will Arnett won’t stop doing his stupid shtick.
But while all the Turtles have overdosed on silly pills, it’s Michelangelo who is the chief offender. He is positively incorrigible in this incarnation, taking his role as the “party dude” and the comedy relief way too far. He’s constantly popping in and interrupting with slapstick, pop culture references, throwaway quotes and dull gags, like a dog barking in your ear while you’re trying to have a conversation. The even bigger struggle is that his material is BAD. He doesn’t say or do anything clever, but instead recycles the most tiresome clichés that exist only to provide noise and distractions. Stuff like accidentally launching a missile and deadpanning, “My bad,” or accidentally farting on his brothers’ faces and deadpanning, “It’s the pepperoni”. And so on and so on. His stuff never elevates to anything more thoughtfully humorous than that except for maybe a boner reference and a scene during the credits where he gropes the boob of a Victoria’s Secret billboard. If Michelangelo alone had received a 50% reduction in dialogue, this might have been a better film.
“Wanna know how much mental anguish you’re gonna associate with this color now, dude?”
At least there’s something to say about him, which I suppose is a point in Mikey’s corner. Because the other Turtles seem to just coexist with Michelangelo and their inability to take anything seriously for longer than five seconds rubs off like they’re trying to compete with him for the audience’s attention. Their personalities exist only skin deep; and by that, I mean that their designs are all cheap visual shorthand for “personality”. Donatello does machines, so he’s a nerd with glasses and lots of tech gear strapped to his body. Raphael is cool but rude, so he’s got a do-rag on his head and sunglasses on top of them. Michelangelo is the party dude, so he’s got surfer puka shells and biker shorts on. Leonardo leads so he’s got samurai cosplay going on.
It’s not that I’m against the idea of individualizing the Turtles on a visual level to match their personalities, but there’s something to be said for subtlety, you know? Just look at how the current Nickelodeon cartoon does it. Don’s the nerd, so he’s lankier and has a dorky gap-tooth. Raph is the tough guy, so he has a small crack in his plastron. Mikey’s the joker, so he’s got bigger eyes and freckles. Leo’s the no-nonsense leader, so he’s the “generic” looking Turtle. It’s the same thing, but not done to such grotesque excess as this movie’s character designs, which rely more on the clothing and accessories to get their personalities across than actually going through the trouble of writing them with individual personalities. Take away their bling and all they amount to is Leader-Michelangelo, Jerk-Michelangelo, Nerd-Michelangelo and Michelangelo-Michelangelo.
One of the biggest flaws in this film is that there is no weight to the rivalry between the Turtles and the Shredder. Their beef is with Eric Sacks, since he killed April’s father and created the virus. However, they all ACT like the Shredder is the one whom they’ve had a long-standing feud with and, likewise, the Shredder reciprocates that attitude. The only reason they behave this way is because in EVERY OTHER Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, comic book or movie, that’s how it is. However, they forgot to write that into this film, so we have a bunch of characters carrying a relationship that exists in other media, but not this one.
There is no Hamato Yoshi. Splinter was just a rat in a test lab that was injected, alongside the Turtles, with mutagen during Sacks’s project. He learns ninjutsu after finding a manual in the sewer. Not because he was the pet rat of a martial arts master from Japan and not because he WAS that martial arts master from Japan (the origin varies), but because he found a manual in the sewer and decided “neat”. He has no feud with the Shredder and yet they treat each other with a long simmering enmity, as though they’d been battling for their whole lives. The movie wants to HAVE that substance without actually BUILDING that substance and the whole thing rings hollow because of it.
If it’s any consolation, Eric Sacks is not the Shredder. That was a marketing ruse meant to misdirect audience expectations. But Jesus Christ, WHAT FOR? It isn’t like there’s a Ken Watanabe/Liam Neeson switcheroo in this film where you THINK Sacks is the Shredder only for Oroku Saki to pull a fast one. No, right off the bat, Sacks meets with the Shredder in person to discuss his sinister plan to take over the city. Again, this movie wanted to HAVE a big reveal by using marketing misdirection, but there ISN’T a big reveal anywhere in the movie. It’s that whole lack of substance thing I was telling you about a paragraph ago all over again.
I’d say Masamune was a good Shredder, but the truth is that he disappears from the film after only two scenes near the beginning. The Shredder for the remainder of the film is played by a CG cartoon character (voiced by Masamune, and to his credit, he does a decent job). The design is fine, I guess, though you can’t tell if a person is even in there; he might as well be a robot. He honestly only shows up for the boss battles and it’s Fichtner’s Sacks who gets to chew the scenery and, well, try to be anything other than a special effect.
Also, Karai is in this movie (played by Minae Noji). It’s a waste of an established character from the source material, as she’s never anything more than a glorified henchwoman with minimal dialogue or screen presence. I think, THINK that they say her name one time in the entire film (and about halfway through) and she vanishes during the fight on the mountainside. They don’t bother telling you whether she lived or died because it doesn’t especially matter. Wikipedia is telling me that Baxter Stockman was in this movie, played by K. Todd Freeman, but really? No joke? Because I didn’t even fucking notice.
Megan Fox’s April O’Neil is just as bad as every other character Fox has played and do you REALLY need me to go on at length about her? Go read a review for Revenge of the Fallen or something; I’m sure they’ll parrot my exact criticisms. But to sum it up, her expressive range extends no further than “mouth open” and “mouth closed”. Whether she thinks that her beloved pet Splinter is dead, whether she’s charmed by Michelangelo’s one-liners, whether she’s watching in horror as the spire of a skyscraper topples to the streets, whether she’s terrified as Eric Sacks menaces her with a handgun… her plastic, artificial face never changes.
This has been a long review and I’m coming to the bottom of three Word pages, so I really ought to wrap this up. I haven’t even touched upon the overall plot, but I guess I’ll try to give you the Reader’s Digest version: The conflicts in the second and third acts are both resolved with what essentially amount to “self destruct buttons”. A character goes to a computer interface, presses a conveniently labeled button and the problem is resolved. It’s hard to give a shit about the overarching conflicts in this movie when buttons are the answer to everything.
Long story short, this was a stupid movie and it was not very good. I wasn’t angry at it, nor was I disappointed with it. I never thought much of it to begin with, hence my numbness now. It was a bad movie on just about every level. But then, I paid $5.50 for a matinee showing and I found a $5 bill in the parking lot on my way out. It’s like fate had decided it was being too hard on me and gave me a refund. So I can’t get too upset.