Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ is a Reimagining Without Imagination

By August 6, 2014
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By their very nature, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a goof. The characters were first conceived as a one-shot comic book parody back in 1984, and while their unexpected popularity has come to include a number of properties that span entire decades, it’s impossible to make a case for the heroes in a half-shell as coming from a serious background. Fortunately, Jonathan Liebesman’s newish take on the material doesn’t try to make walking, talking, ninja-ing turtles scan as dour or somber, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still doesn’t have nearly as much fun with its material as it should. They are teenage turtles with mutant blood that are good at martial arts. It shouldn’t be this hard.

This new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t the kind of “dark and gritty” reboot we’ve come to expect from relaunched comic book properties, but it instead occupies a strange middle ground that doesn’t hold much of a pull for the kind of demographics that are a natural fit for such fare: kids who like the turtles now and adults who have fond memories of them. The film’s PG-13 rating means that it has plenty of fighting sequences, but as violent as it is – and it really is, someone actually gets thrown through a moving subway train at one point– it doesn’t come with anything that looks like real consequences. It’s cartoonish violence, but it’s still too scary for the younger set and too tame for the adults. It’s like reverse Goldilocks. Too hot and too cold, nothing just right.

It opens promisingly enough, with a zippy introduction dedicated to exposition (they are turtles! they are learning martial arts from a rat daddy surrogate in order to protect the city! they probably should not show themselves just yet!) told via splashy comic book panels. The turtle dudes slice and dice their way into ninja glory – literally, as it seems that the four of them chop up enough pieces of fruit during their exercises that it’s remarkable fruit salad isn’t their favorite food, instead of the classic pizza pick – while waiting to debut their skills to the city above. It’s up top that we meet April O’Neil (Megan Fox, still aces at looking calm during Michael Bay-branded explosions), a cub reporter looking for a big story. Stuck on an uninspiring news beat – the kind of fluffy stuff that her producer Vern (Will Arnett, providing limited comic relief) refers to as “candy” – April is bent on finding a breakthrough story that will make a difference, both to the city and to her career.

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The Foot clan (evil as ever) seems like a good place to start, but though we’re repeatedly told how ruthless and cruel they are and how much they’ve damaged the city, for most of the film their escapades seem limited to robbing trucks and running away when a gang of vigilantes gets too close. The vigilantes are, of course, the turtles, bent on stopping the Foot clan and saving the city. It’s April’s persistence that allows her to catch them in the act, although the more obvious reason – it’s the kind of coincidence the entire script needs to move forward – is embarrassingly clear.

This time around, the turtles’ origin story has been refashioned to more purposely fold in both April and the eventually-revealed-to-be-nefarious Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) – apparently, it’s not enough that April is interested in their weirdo existence and comes to care about the dudes or that Sachs is just a bad guy, they need to be linked up for entire years to make the story stick. It’s oddly similar to the latest spin on The Amazing Spider-Man mythos, with April’s own father playing a key role in the genesis of the turtles and Splinter. Lil’ April pops up in flashbacks, too, a plucky sprite who somehow saves all five of her “pets” from a terrible industrial fire, while (apparently?) not paying a bit of attention to her dead father, laying just feet away from their respective cages.

Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lays on all that backstory pretty thick, it’s far less interested in the cinematic present, as the film’s overall narrative and major mission remains obscured for far too long. Eventually, Sachs is outed as a baddie (it’s William Fichtner, of course he’s a baddie) and his ties to the Foot and Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) are revealed, along with their big bad plan, but that takes far too long to get to, and TMNT flatlines early.

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What’s the film missing? More turtles, weirdly enough. There’s little about the turtles’ physical appearance that is appealing – they are big and bulky and buff, and while that certainly makes them worthy physical opponents to their many nemeses, they are terrifying even to friends. It’s no wonder that April passes out once she gets a good look at them, but it’s surprising that it doesn’t continually happen. They are giant turtles that look like bodybuilders. It is nightmarish. Still, the film does succeed at clearly laying out the personality traits of each turtle, traditional takes that have been slightly altered to make things seem more modern (they’re super into rap music), and when the foursome are allowed to have some fun, the entire film is far more entertaining and it’s surprisingly easy to forget how terrifying their new, CGI-heavy rendering is.

The film’s final act is crammed with action, and while a chase scene set on a snowy mountaintop that involves a hefty number of vehicles careening wildly down a steep slope is exciting and well-made, the final bust-up is uninspired and somewhat hard to follow (it also sticks to the ol’ “hey, it’s so easy to grab a good handhold when you’re apparently tossed off a building” trope that should be tossed off its own building for good). The highlight of that sequence? The turtles, beatboxing in an elevator on their way to the fight. That’s what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should be, but that’s not what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually is, content to approximate the past without adding anything new.

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Kate Erbland
Kate Erbland is a staff writer for movie news and reviews at GeekNation. Her work can also be found at Film School Rejects, ScreenCrush, Vanity Fair, The Dissolve, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, amNewYork, New York Daily News, Dame Magazine, Mental Floss, Film.com, MSN Movies, and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in New York City with two cats, two turtles, one boyfriend, and a frightening number of sensible canvas totes.