So much for taking a shortcut.
I went to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles last night not out of some actual interest in the film, but because I was banking on it being spectacularly bad. It is much easier for me to write a review for a movie that is an absolute abomination and I was hoping to take it a little easy this week. Plus writing reviews for trainwrecks is a lot of fun for me; it’s a challenge to see how many different ways that I can say that a film sucked. So as the lights dimmed last night and the movie started, I smiled to myself at my cleverness in going to see an early screening of a terrible film that wasn’t particularly long. I’d be home in time to write my unfavorable review and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Easy peasy.
Of course nothing in life is that simple and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not nearly the disastrous movie-going experience that I was banking on. Sadly this reboot wasn’t awful. Now, don’t get it twisted – I’m not saying that it was good either. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the most frustrating of movies: too good to be bad but too bad to be good. It found a way to perfectly occupy the middle ground of “meh.” In some ways, that is a moderate victory for a film that pretty much everyone discounted. If they want to put a tag line on their posters that reads “Surprisingly not the worst movie of the year” I’ll let them use my name. That’s probably the highest praise that I can bestow upon it. The power of lowered expectations rears its head once again.
One of the reasons that the film was somewhat passable was that the rumors of all the changes that were made to the story turned out to be greatly exaggerated. If you a kid of the 90s, you probably watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons or movies and have certain preconceived notions of the origin story of Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael. While the new movie does slightly alter how these turtles mutated, it doesn’t run as far afoul of the story that you are familiar with as I anticipated. At one point, Michael Bay made mention that this incarnation of the turtles may be aliens, rather than the result of exposure to toxic chemicals. This reveal caused die-hard TMNT fans (who knew that those existed?) to freak.the.hell.out. They can rest easy, however, since that more radical alteration is not part of the movie. Depending on if you are a TMNT purist or not, the edits that were made may or may not be tolerable. Personally, my investment in the TMNT franchise is pretty minimal, so I didn’t have any issue with it.
The plot of TMNT is fairly generic and routine: Criminal activity by a group that refers to themselves as “the foot soldiers” is on the rise in NYC and fledgling reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is determined to uncover the story, especially when she sees some vigilantes fighting back. The vigilantes are of course the Turtles and working with April they are determined to bring down the foot soldiers and their boss, Shredder, before their plans for destruction can be unleashed on the city. Will Arnett also stars as April’s cameraman Vernon and William Fichtner plays wealthy businessman Eric Sacks, whose motives cannot be trusted (mostly because Fichtner always plays some shady dude). Shredder’s evil plot isn’t all that important and doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, but in these types of movies it doesn’t really matter.
One of the main problems with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that the Turtles kind of take a backseat in their own movie. We spend way more time with Megan Fox than we do with the Turtles – which may be a selling point to some audience members – and there isn’t a lot of effort to make the Turtles interesting characters in their own right. The employ a lot of short hand to do the work of character building; it’s easier to just slap a pair of glasses on Raphael and call it a day. I get that this is a kid’s movie and character building isn’t necessarily a priority, but the result is that the Turtles become kind of interchangeable, which from a marketing standpoint is not great. The only Turtle that has any real personality is wisecracking Michelangelo and he is easily the most fun part of the movie. But even he only gets in a few jokes in the Turtles’ somewhat diminished screen time.
Megan Fox reportedly campaigned pretty hard for the role of April O’Neil, which makes sense since the role fits within her limitations as an actress. I actually like Fox as a person, but we all know that no one is putting her in films because she is a master thespian. She’s hot – but she’s a hot chick that has experience in these sorts of films (see the Transformers franchise) so TMNT is right in her wheelhouse. She’s serviceable in the role of April, but the film spends way too much time with her and her limitations in carrying a film are evident. Of course, she’s not given much to work with in terms of dialogue or plot, which doesn’t help matters. I’m not really sure what Will Arnett is doing in this movie; I’m really hoping that he did it for his kids because if this is the type of roles that he’s pursuing, he’s made a huge mistake. He’s better than this nonsense, especially since his role relies on him leering after Fox a lot of the time.
The main issue that I had with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was that is just wasn’t very much fun. The original cartoon and movies were goofy, but that was kind of the point. The silliness was mostly intentional and was part of the charm. The Turtles, after all, are supposed to be teenagers. I mean – it’s right there in the title. But this updated version of the franchise takes itself way too seriously. The Turtles have lost their surfer dude spirit and the result is a movie that is pretty boring and lacks any real personality. When you are trying to sell your audience on the concept of 6 ft. tall talking turtles that are martial arts experts, you really should try to have some fun with it. Tonally, TMNT just can’t figure out what kind of movie that it’s trying to be. It’s too weird of a concept to be serious, but it takes itself too seriously to be weird. The film should have taken a page out of Guardians of the Galaxy and embraced its oddity and had some fun with it. Instead, the film just kind of falls flat.
Some other thoughts:
- Johnny Knoxville voices Leonardo, which is really distracting since the rest of the Turtles are voiced by less recognizable people. Every time Leonardo spoke, I was keenly aware that it was Knoxville.
- You could drive a Mack truck through some of the plot holes in this film, so don’t spend too much time trying to process anything that you are seeing.
- Whoopi Goldberg has what amounts to a glorified cameo in the film as April’s boss.
- Here are portraits of the Turtles done in the style of their Renaissance namesakes.
- Uproxx created the definitive ranking of the pop songs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
- I always like the character of Casey Jones from the franchise, but he’s not in the reboot.
- The new film does work in some references to the original series, but it feels kind of forced and like they are checking things off a list. Either do it well or don’t do it.
- The action sequences are OK, but suffer from the usual limitations of the genre of it mostly being too dark to see what is actually going on. The exception is the sequence that takes place on a snowy mountain, which was the best part of the movie. It was still a bit discombobulating because of all the quick cuts, but it was easily the highlight of the movie.
- Early on in the film, they concoct a ridiculous reason to have Megan Fox on a trampoline. At the same time, they seemed to be commenting on the ridiculousness of what they were doing so I thought perhaps this was a more enlightened movie. That theory was proven wrong when later in the film they linger on a shot of Fox’s backside for no apparent reason. So I’m curious as to what comprised the “girl power scenes” that Fox says were cut from the film.
- I don’t have kids, but for the parents out there I think this would be OK for kids 7 and up, depending on their exposure to violence in other programming. No one dies on screen, but there are threats of killing people and guns. If they are OK with what happens in Marvel movies, then they should be fine with TMNT. There are a few jokes that are little sexualized in nature, but I don’t think most kids will get them. No cursing.
I realize that I am not the target demo for this film, but even the kids that were in the theater with me didn’t seem particularly riveted with the movie. I think that if they had just had more fun with the movie and made more of an effort to make the characters interesting (and distinguishable) it might have been a half-decent flick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is never going to be high art, but they could have created a movie that was actually entertaining and fun to watch. They didn’t even succeed in making a film that is so bad that it’s good; movies that are spectacularly bad have their own charms. Instead, the reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is mostly a boring, joyless affair. It’s not painful to sit through, but it is pretty instantly forgettable. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad…it just is.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opens nationwide today.