They’re the world’s most fierce fighting team. They’re heroes in a half-shell and they’re green.
That’s right, I still remember the song words. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as encapsulated by the 1987 cartoon series, will always have a soft spot in my heart. I’d watch it every morning before schoo. I collected all the toy figurines, and distinctively recall lining up outside the department store and rushing in as soon as it opened to get the latest additions. I had Ninja Turtles stationery, I played Ninja Turtles video games, and I even bought a whole bunch of crap just so I could collect these stupid complimentary Ninja Turtles coins. Those were the days, and Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo were the shit.
And so I’m not ashamed to say that I was kinda looking forward to the new live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, even though I have not followed the franchise for a couple of decades and did not watch the new cartoon series nor the 2007 computer animated feature film. And dammit, even if Michael Bay was involved and Megan fox plays April O’Neil, I was still determined to see it.
If I could sum up the film in one word, it would be: underwhelming. I don’t think it is as bad as some critics have made it out to be (must be the automatic bias from knowing that Michael Bay produced it), but everything about it is too “by the book.” From the plot to the action to the humor, there is absolutely nothing to get excited about. Director Jonathan Liebesman, who doesn’t have a terrible track record with a CV that includes Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans, treads too lightly to make waves. As a result, the film is cookie-cutter. It’s pure vanilla. If not for the CGI, motion-capture turtles, the film doesn’t add much, if anything, to the legacy of the franchise.
The story could not be more conventional, even by Hollywood standards. It’s an origins story, so you’ll get the whole spiel about how the turtles mutated and were turned into martial arts experts by a mutant rat named Splinter. There’s the evil Shredder, there’s his Foot Clan, and there’s the reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett). They made a few minor tweaks around the edges of the script and added the new character, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner)– whom I initially and erroneously thought was Shredder — but apart from that everything stays quite close to the cartoons I watched.
The action generally lacked creativity. With martial arts movies taking it to the next level these days, it’s disappointing to not see something with a little more flair considering that the turtles are CGI. Yeah, I know they are motion captured, but it doesn’t hurt to give them some additional enhancements. The only time the action tried anything daring was in an extended snow sequence that reminded me a lot of the river scene from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. And like that scene, this one also felt somewhat cartoonish — yes, even for a film largely based on a cartoon.
As for the turtles, while I liked the idea of CGI motion capture, I wasn’t a huge fan of the designs. I didn’t mind the Kanji characters and little bits and pieces added to their respective bodies, but they looked way too big and muscular (the original Ninja Turtles were supposed to be only about five feet tall). And they’re ugly fellas too, with the beady nostrils and menacing faces. They looked more like villains than heroes, to be honest, and the performances from the actors (Alan Ritchson, Shawn Kavanaugh, Pete Ploszek/Johnny Knoxville, and Jeremy Howard) didn’t make them any more likable. Too much cheese, not enough charm.
Fortunately, my favorite turtle, Michelangelo, looked at least semi-normal. But the glasses thing with Donatello made him look like a freak, while Rafael, who for some reason always get special attention in the movies despite being an angry, unreasonable douchebag, just looked gross.
And Splinter, strangely voiced by Tony Shalhaub of all people, was just weird. I thought the turtles generally looked realistic enough, with the exception of a couple of close-ups under bright lighting conditions, but with Splinter, he looked too CGI almost all the time and came across as more of a creep than the trusted and loving sensei of my childhood.
I’m a fan of William Fichtner and thought he would excel as the villain Schredder, whom they more or less turned into Edward Scissorhands with a helmet. I actually thought it was a nice modern adjustment to fuse the look of Schredder’s traditional samurai armour with advanced weapons technology, but unfortunately, Fichtner was not Schredder, who turned out to be some lame Japanese guy whose face you barely saw for the entire movie. Honestly, it would have been so much better had they just made Fichtner Schredder. It would have made more sense too, plot-wise. Maybe he could fulfill that destiny in the planned sequels.
The one thing the film got right was making sure the turtles, rather than the humans, were the stars of the show. Megan Fox is not someone I had pictured for the role, but she’s actually not awful here. She’s OK, and that’s good enough for a supporting actor.
The film’s biggest asset turned out to be Will Arnett, who provided all the jokes in the movie — at least the jokes that were funny anyway. and he did it by unashamedly channeling GOB Bluth from Arrested Development. Not that I am complaining, because GOB is one of the funniest TV characters of all time. AD fans will get a kick out of his performance, as well as the AD Easter eggs they put into the movie.
Perhaps I’ve become too cynical of a moviegoer after all these years, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, despite not being a complete failure, didn’t do much for me. Granted, it is better than the recent Transformers entries. It’s less loud, less obnoxious and less long (101 minutes), and for some, that’s probably enough. The 1990 film was most likely not very good either, but I loved it as a kid. Accordingly, I think it’s possible that younger viewers could enjoy the 2014 version a lot too. Sadly for me, no amount of nostalgia can make me come to the conclusion that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is anything more than average.
3 stars out of 5