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‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Is Not Worth a Cowabunga

The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie will have longtime Turtle fans shouting “No, ninja, no, ninja, no!”, for this reboot is a mindless mess.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner
US Release Date: 2014-12-16

There’s something a bit ironic about calling 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie dumb. In 1984 comic artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird sketched some anthropomorphic turtles, gave them martial arts skills to fight the Foot Clan, and placed them in the New York City sewer in an deliberate effort to lampoon the absurdity of trendy comic books like Daredevil, New Mutants and Frank Miller’s Ronin. That’s right, the Ninja Turtles were supposed to be a joke, and hardly anything more than that. Eastman and Laird didn’t count on their self-published black-and-white comic book becoming a wildly popular cartoon series in the late '80s, let alone a multimedia empire that included live action movies, a bizarre concert tour, countless action figures, and a delightful green pie from Hostess -- but it happened.

In the years that have followed their heyday, the Turtles, like most other enduring characters of popular culture, have shown off their flexibility. Many creators have taken creative liberties and reinvented the material. While perhaps no one is a bigger fan of the Ninja Turtles circa 1990 than I am, it’s always enjoyable to see how different storytellers handle the “heroes in a half-shell”.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film from director Jonathan Liebesman (best known for Battle: Los Angeles) is almost completely lacking in “Turtle power”. For a multimedia franchise that once featured a maniacal talking brain from Dimension X and, on another occasion, a drawn-out performance of “Ninja Rap” by Vanilla Ice, please understand what I’m saying when I tell you the new movie is -- in almost every way -- very, very stupid. If you've seen the trailer, you already know whether or not you're going to like movie, which is precisely the problem.

Filmmaking for pure nostalgia’s sake often warrants lazy filmmaking; Transformers and G.I. Joe have taught us as much. However, this adaptation should have been better. Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is incoherent, incredibly loud, and pointlessly brash. While those aspects might (at least somewhat) come with the territory, to make matters worse, the movie is generally lacking the whimsical fun factor that Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Donatello might have brought to the childhood experience of the '80s.

In this roided-up, live action, PG-13 reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, the heroes are bulletproof behemoths. These towering, ultra-buff, computer-generated Turtles are, like the film itself, distended, ugly and charmless. Even the Pizza Hut product placement, a pizza with 98 cheeses, is on steroids. Similarly, the villainous Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) in his armored suit equipped with flying blades, looks like the worst possible combination of Darth Vader, Optimus Prime, and Edward Scissorhands.

The ridiculous plot -- which, again, is saying something for this franchise --involves the evil Foot Clan leader, Shredder, and millionaire scientist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) looking to make a fortune by releasing deadly fusion of chemicals into New York City’s air and then selling an antidote spawned from the blood of the mutant Turtles. Along the way, the Ninja Turtles punch, kick and cut ‘em no slack while Channel 6 reporter April O’Neil and her cameraman Vern (a dolefully misplaced Will Arnett) attempt to share their story and survive the adventure. The Turtles’ sensei Splinter, a mutant rat voiced by Tony Shalhoub, also makes brief appearances.

Fichtner, as Sacks, finds himself in a role so one-dimensional he lacks only a mustache to dastardly twirl. Though Fichtner’s a stellar actor, his presence cannot make up for the filmmakers’ haphazard choices. Amidst fast edits and CGI-overload, lots of stuff blows up, which is to be expected since Michael Bay produced the film.

Megan Fox, the actress Bay previously hired to play summer movie eye-candy in his first two Transformers movies, plays the Turtles’ human ally April O’Neil. Strangely enough, April is this motion picture’s protagonist, not the titular turtles. The film’s 100 minutes are spent mostly with her quest for journalistic integrity, or something like that. Consequently, the Ninja Turtles don’t even show up during the first 20 minutes of the Ninja Turtlesmovie; though Fox does find herself jumping on a trampoline for the camera in that time frame. Really.

It’s easy to fault Fox, but her acting chops and her ugly thumbs aren’t really to blame. April has never been a well-written character; even worse, her primary role here is merely to be ogled at. By everyone. She is acknowledged zero times for her smarts or bravery, instead leered at countless times for her looks, whether she’s unknowingly distracting the news van’s driver with her butt during a chase scene, or ignoring the perpetual lust-filled comments from the Turtles like, “She’s so hot, I can feel my shell tightening”. While longtime fans will also be disappointed the Turtles have been reduced to April’s sidekicks, younger viewers of this Nickelodeon production deserve to see much better treatment of the sole female character, especially by the movie’s heroes.

Furthermore, in all previous versions of the Turtles, no matter what the tone, Michelangelo was at least reliably funny on screen. In the 2014 film, except for the time Mikey leads the group in an impromptu beatboxing session before an over-the-top battle, almost all attempts at humor from any character fall flatter than a thin crust pizza.

Say what you will about the original low-budget 1990 live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, but compared to this Michael Bay version, it captured more personality and depth with its inventive Jim Henson-designed animatronic costumes, Corey Feldman-voiced shenanigans, and good-humored dialogue. The breakneck pace of this reboot doesn’t really provide many moments of downtime to get to know the main characters. Save for the color of their bandanas, the Turtles are particularly interchangeable here. Assuredly, the screenwriters made sure Leo’s still the dedicated leader, Raph’s the firebrand, Donnie’s the nerd, and Mikey’s the one who gets to shout “Cowabunga!” once in a while, but there’s never more to them than that.

The sole sequence in the film that deserves much merit finds the Turtles, April, and Vern inside a runaway truck careering down a snowy mountain, pursued by a bunch of Foot Gang vehicles filled with military weaponry. It’s undoubtedly almost entirely computer generated, but it is also a tightly constructed dazzle of effects that moves quickly from stunt to stunt as it leaves the heroes avoiding sudden death again and again. It should also be said that composer Brian Tyler’s pulsing score channels the best of ‘80s-era John Williams, especially in these most adventurous moments. If only a better overall film accompanied his spirited orchestral handiwork.

Perhaps, the best news for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans young and old is that there are plenty of other adaptations of these characters out there to watch. Some are, admittedly, even worse than this Bay-produced motion picture, such as 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III or 1997’s short-lived The Next Mutation series. Nevertheless, most are much better, including the aforementioned 1990 film, which smartly combined some of the grit and edginess of the original comics with the lightheartedness of the era’s beloved cartoon, and the underrated 2003 animated series. If you’re determined to discover a more contemporary version of these characters, you’d be much better off watching Nickelodeon’s latest cartoon series that features the voice talents of Sean Astin, Seth Green, and Rob Paulsen. This series is deservedly as popular as cheese pizza is with its target audience.

Meanwhile, let Liebesman’s take on the Ninja Turtles skate by you; it’s as satisfying as an empty shell. The Blu-ray collection’s special features, mainly an assortment of brief making-of featurettes, are as shell-shockingly insipid as the movie itself.


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