A Totally Biased Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
A faithful and exciting reboot, despite being a bit of a hollow shell
It’s been a fairly epic summer for movies. First, we got the sci-fi masterpiece, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Next, it was the sword and sandal epic Hercules, a powerful showcase for the rock as a legitimate leading man. Following the Rock action vehicle was the magnificent new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the record-breaking Guardians of the Galaxy. And to finish us off in style, is the latest take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And I’m here to say, it’s probably everything you were expecting. Maybe even a little more.
The Michael Bay produced film operates and moves like a typical Michael Bay action romp: it picks up momentum quickly, doesn’t like to let off the acceleration, and is an absolute orgasm to behold. It knows who its target audience is and it unabashedly caters, very heavily, to them and this will likely be reason enough for most movie-goers to stay away. If you’ve got the stomach for it, then there’s a fun-filled ride here, chockfull of self-reverence and an easy, if not disjointed, story to follow. Adding to the sense of incoherence, the film toys with several presentations, opening with a narrated series of illustrations, chronicling the origin of our heroes. The transition from this opening piece into the film is awkward, but it clearly spells out what the Nickelodeon audience may not have known. For the rest of us, it sets the films juvenile tone of the story, and in a hurry. As the story progresses, I found more and more of the peril or established conflicts either brushed aside or glossed over. Perhaps in keeping with its audiences ADD, the story itself can’t be bothered to resolve every little problem that’s introduced, but man… Does the story move or what!
That story centers in on struggling reporter April O’Neil, who follows up every possible lead she can, trying to uncover more on the elusive Foot Clan, whose influence is spreading across New York in a neverending crime spree. Cue the eponymous team of mutant heroes. The story develops quickly after each major character is given a brief, if even non-existent, introduction and then, we’re off! The film’s action rarely relents, being a constant kinetic feast for the eyes, and even when the action revs down a couple notches, the unfolding humor or drama is always, at the very least, quite interesting to look at. Which is one of the films biggest problems: A lot of this films allure runs only skin-deep. It makes the assumption you’re a 13 year-old boy and that you’re familiar with the core characters. I’m a born, bred and raised Turtle-lover. I got what was going on. If you need things like “character motivation” or “backstory” or “logic,” then no, this movie is not for you… Wait… Shit.
As I said, the film panders to the younger teenage boys who’ll populate the seats, as well as copiously feeds off the nostalgia factor, with more than one joke referencing earlier films, the successful tv show, or even the line of TMNT toys it spawned. The film is very faithful to all of these, giving fans of them exactly what they want in abundance and encapsulating the essence of what TMNT has always been about. Since the film acts, behaves like, and is, a cartoon brought to life, each character is exactly who they have been, and should be. Donatello is the genius, gadget-wielding nerd, complete with dipping glasses. Michelangelo is the slightly bohemian, easy-going jokester of the quartet. Raphael is the hard-headed, fiery badass he ever was. And Leonardo leads them as the courageous dual-wielding swordsman. The turtles are, finally, written as authentic teenagers, and we see their formative years as youngsters, excited by the hottest new music video, or exclaiming when they get their hands on a steering wheel for the first time. They also behave more like brothers than previous incarnations, bickering more incessantly and to greater comedic effect, endearing them much more easily. Despite this clever direction, these are still basic characters lifted from the pages of a comic. Their sensei, Master Splinter, is both an exposition dump and a master martial artist because the story requires him to be. How did he learn it? A book that’s one hardcover away from “Ninjitsu for Dumbies.” The Shredder is a disfigured, mega-grumpy, ultra dangerous Japanese martial artist. His arc literally begins and ends with “Roundhouse!” There’s little depth here to the characters or the story and it works to accentuate the simplicity of its elements while lending the story constant kinetic motion by not getting bogged down in contrived drama.
The motion is both breathless and intoxicating, and completely lives up to the films namesake, as the heroes are superpowered behemoths who fight with superhuman strength and disappear with unnatural grace and stealth. The film is made very contemporary and wisely references the current social climate for young adults. This awareness runs through nearly every one of the films aspects, from its raucous and generous amount of humor, to the updated scale to the action, it’s a hipper, more modern take on a 30-year-old property. The character designs, from Mikey’s seashell necklace to Raph’s bandana to Shredders ridiculously badass Iron Man-like suit of armor, are all spot on and elevate characters to a whole new level of awesome. The only blemish here is Splinter, who looks more like a cross-eyed, hairless R.O.U.S. than anything else. The action is similarly ramped up in typical Michael Bay fashion, and each mounting action set piece has a liberal sprinkle of the films jovial humor, such as a brilliant a capella turn by the lab-bred quadruplets or Mikey’s serious crush on April, both of which are very succesful.
The sensational action and effective bro-humor serve to underline the films biggest, glaring issue: it’s very, very shallow. Even a dwarven midget would have a hard time wading through anything more than ankle-deep here. Megan Fox as April feels unconvincing as a reporter, with neither a convincing tv look or convincing tv sound. It’s also jarring that, as the emotional anchor and the human connection the audience feels to the film for the first 3rd of the film, her involvement is relegated to a minor supporting role once the turtles are introduced. It’s the right move, but it’s an awkward transition, just the same. Her human counterpart, Vernon Fenwick, serves mostly as the friend-zoned comedic element, but being a clear 15 or so years older than Megan and with a deep, gravelly voice to prove it, he comes across as more creepy than anything else. And don’t even get me started on Whoopi Goldberg’s character. Only William Fichtner, as Erick Sacks, turns in a noteworthy performance. As an actor, he exudes an air of sensibility and an aura of being seasoned and experienced with hardly any effort. That’s not to say that his character is Falstaff. He’s simply a very capable actor and is easy to buy into, almost in a Liam Neeson sort of way.
You just have to know what you’re getting yourself into, more or less, for better or worse. If you ever enjoyed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the past, have a love of comics or over the top action, then this is a film you’ll definitely enjoy. If you can’t enjoy a film without a well-crafted story, comprehensive and deep character arcs or silly fart jokes or ridiculous Kung Fu stuff, then steer clear. The rest of us will enjoy one of the summers best popcorn flicks without you.
– Faithful to its source: this is made for kids
– Simple story elements make for a shallow experience