Movie review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

TMNT 2014I did not have the highest of hopes for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles going in, but as soon as I saw the Nickelodeon Movies logo pop up in the credits, I felt myself wanting to go easy on it. I’m kind of glad I did because, surprisingly, Turtles isn’t terrible, and I think its intended audience is going to enjoy the film quite a bit.

Sure, the purists are going to be distraught over changes made from the source material, but the film manages to stay true enough to Eastman and Laird’s comics and the cartoons that it’s not outright blasphemy. That’s not to say the gripes of die-hard TMNT fans should be dismissed altogether. It’s admittedly a tad ridiculous that Splinter somehow manages to teach himself jujitsu from a book he just happens to find while hiding down in the sewer. Originally, he learned from watching and imitating his master, but I guess the writers felt the need to change things up to justify the reboot. Also, Shredder has no real background to speak of and is little more than a walking Leatherman multi-tool. And, yeah, Michelangelo’s general horniness directed towards Megan Fox’s April O’Neil is generally uncomfortable and brings up images in your mind that are the stuff of nightmares. None of that, though, is terribly consequential.

The movie does have bigger problems, from shoddy CGI (several of the fights reminded me of the battles in Blade II, which featured some glaringly bad CG work but was released 12 years ago) to severely underwritten characters. Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg are completely wasted here, hamstrung by a script more interested in moving the story along from one bit to the next than giving the characters any meaningful signs of life. Fox is decent, and, while she basically fades into the background in the last third of the movie, she never once teeters into the eye-rolling badness of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen territory. (Well, maybe she does in ONE moment near the end.) It would have been nice to see her given more to do, but, again, the writers didn’t seem particularly invested in fleshing out any of the characters and even less so in providing any meaningful dialogue. William Fichtner turns up as well to perform secondary-villain duty and handily chews up enough scenery to make an army of mousers take a step back to admire him.

Despite all of this, I found quite a bit to enjoy in the film. The 3D presentation is top notch, giving everything a great amount of depth and a real sense of palpability. There’s a cool scene with everyone careening down a mountainside* and some inventive camerawork employed during nutty sequences such as when Donatello flips a sliding vehicle with his staff. (And his reaction to what he’s just pulled off is pretty funny itself.)

Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-2014-MichelangeloOnce the turtles fully appear and take center stage, the film is able to pull itself from the dullness of its first 15 or 20 minutes. All four of them are largely endearing. Michelangelo is probably the closest to his earlier incarnations, just a little hornier than we need him to be. (Not that he’s seen jacking off in a corner or anything, but you get the sense that, had this been a full-on Michael Bay movie, we might have gotten that.) Leonardo is the front man of the group and is voiced by Johnny Knoxville in a reasonable, unobtrusive style. He’s constantly butting heads with Rafael, the hulking, brooding brute of the team. Donatello and Splinter round things out as the tech-savvy geek and Sensei of the group, respectively. Just like their human counterparts, the turtles suffer a bit from the writing, but they’re established well enough that maybe we’ll get better banter between them in a sequel. Among the stuff that totally works is a scene where Splinter forces Michelangelo to spill on the team’s nighttime doings, breaking him by using a “legendary” 99-cheese pizza from Pizza Hut.** You actually start to believe that Splinter is going to list EVERY single cheese used in the pie. There is also an impromptu beat-boxing scene in an elevator that is an absolute delight and probably the moment of the film that most captures the soul of TMNT. More bits like that could have gone a long way in setting a proper tone that carried through the whole movie.

Near the end of the film, the unrelenting action gets to the point where I started to tune out, but thankfully the movie wraps up just before it manages to overstay its welcome. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t a bad film and is certainly better than I was expecting. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest you run out to catch it immediately, but if you’ve got kids who live and breathe the Turtles, take them to see it. It’s not an outright insult to the franchise, and they’re sure to enjoy it.

*Speaking of which, I live in NYC and would LOVE to know where I can find these incredible Colorado-quality mountains and vistas so close to the city. Ahem.

**Pizza Hut gets some crazy advertising in this film. No love for the brick and mortar pizza shops, boys? What kind of New Yorkers are these turtles anyway?!