[8 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When you have an idea as inherently goofy as adolescent amphibians morphed into martial arts trained vigilantes, it doesn’t help to take said material too seriously. Gravitas adds nothing except questions, queries the innately oddball concepts can’t answer.
That’s one of the many problems with the laughable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. Instead of going cartoony, producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman have decided to apply the Transformers technique to this material, substituting bombast for fun and bloat for finesse.
Brains between the ages of five and 15 will probably cotton to this joyless mess. Anyone old enough to remember the original heroes on the half-shell will find this unnecessary update half-baked and half-assed.
It all begins with human interest reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox, looking exhausted) trying to break into the world of serious journalism. Sadly, her less-than-understanding editor/boss (Whoopi Goldberg) and her trusty cameraman (Will Arnett) want her on fitness regimes and fashion shoots. Such professional roadblocks don’t matter, as April does a bit of after hours snooping to get the scoop on the violent Foot Clan and their leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). It’s during one of these investigations where she comes across a quartet of oversized tortoises, and it turns out, they have a connection to her.
It was April’s father, while working with industrialist Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) that discovered an alien ooze and used it to experiment on these creatures. They mutated, came under the tutelage of the equally transformed rat, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) and became… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fischer), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville) must keep their existence a secret while helping their new human friend defeat Shredder and uncover a Foot Clan plot to poison the people of Manhattan.
With its fast pace and low IQ investment requirement, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not just terrible, it’s tiresome. It overwhelms you with flash and fury, but only ends up giving you a headache. Liebesman’s previous resume doesn’t scream Bay Substitute, yet at any given moment he’s working his mentor’s tricks in order to convince the audience they’re having an “AWESOME” time. The kids will kowtow to such media manipulation, and some of their less educated relatives might find this film exciting. But for those immersed in the showboating of cinematic spectacle, this is clumsy chaos at best. It offers very little in the way of awe and often suffers from over-editing and quick cut confusion.
That’s because, beyond the battles, there’s really nothing here to hang onto. The desire to create a multi-film mutant turtle mythos is nice, except we already had a fully developed one as part of the comics. Of course, that doesn’t allow for Fichtner to play red herring or for April to have an actual human connection to how these warriors became self-aware. In fact, the whole thing feels very Amazing Spider-Man like, an attempt to put a personal face on an otherwise fantastical concept. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doubles such displeasure by offering an opening animation sequence which more or less sets up the beings’ beginnings as well. Talk about taking a sledgehammer to your origin story.
Not that the characters supply any subtlety or substance. Fox finds the least resistance in what she wants to accomplish, her desire to turn April into a rebellious fighter for truth often trumped by overly plump Kewpie doll lips and damsel in distress droning. She is matched in meaningless consternation by Arnett, who plays a lunkheaded lothario who believes he is destined to be April’s boyfriend. Since there is no chemistry in the casting, his longing comes off as creepy and confusing. Again, Fichtner’s place is the narrative is so obvious that, when he’s being noble, you wish he would simply stop bullshitting and get on with the nasty. When he does turn - no spoilers or surprises here - he immediately becomes dull.
And then there are the turtles themselves, a hodgepodge of archetypal truisms that don’t expand beyond jerk (Raphael), nerd (Michelangelo), leader (Leonardo) and hip-hop obsessed bro (Donatello). Even with the celebrity voice casting—Knoxville and Shalhoub are unrecognizable—the dialogue determines their obvious proclivities. This leads to lame jokes, blatant pandering (the casual inclusion of pizza and pizza related farts) and the constant love sick shtick between April and Don. It all becomes so uninteresting and unoriginal. Only Splinter, post-attack, manages to deliver anything resembling a real performance, and that’s more because of the CG than the situation.
In fact, the look of these turtles will cause some concern among purists and those who like their family film heroes more on the cutesy side. These are some odd looking amphibians, their faces developing an off-putting snout while the bodies mock The Rock for buff, muscled machismo. The animation is seamless, but thanks to a wholly unnecessary reconfiguration for 3D, the turtle skin textures are washed out and the flatness of the whole live action/CG enterprise is exposed. In fact, there are moments at the end, where our foursome is battling Shredder high atop a Manhattan skyscraper (where all evil plots are thwarted, apparently) that looks like a video game more than a movie.
Of course, that’s what the producers of this commercial claptrap are hoping. Just as the pen and ink musings of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird inspired a previous generation to watch the TV show, buy the comics, and survey the merchandise (Including my own personal favorite tie-in, the Hostess Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pudding Pie. Yum!), Bay and his buddies want to inspire a whole new round of TMNT devotion directly tied to this film.
Who knows? Maybe if it makes enough money it will become a regular plague, like those toxic Transformers films that still manage to make billions in bank worldwide. And they are based on a goofy premise (talking, shape-shifting robots), as well. Of course, there is less to mess up with a bunch of mechanized machines. As Bay and Liebesman prove with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, taking a silly idea and making it serious results in nothing but stupidity and, perhaps, significant box office returns.