Film Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

Neither a particularly good movie nor the pop-cultural travesty that some were dreading.

If nothing else, Paramount’s attempt at a bigscreen “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot should make for a fascinating case study in the power of fan outrage. Following the online uproar over their proposed deviations from the original material, among them a shortened title (“Ninja Turtles”) and a bizarre alien-planet backstory, producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman have delivered a back-to-basics origin saga that is neither a particularly good movie nor the pop-cultural travesty that some were dreading. Much slicker-looking but less endearing than its ’90s live-action predecessors, the film manifests all the usual attributes of a Bay production — chaotic action, crass side jokes, visual-effects overkill, Megan Fox — but is nowhere near “Transformers”-level off-putting. It should be a pretty easy shell to audiences worldwide.

Conceived in the ’80s as a good-natured spoof of superhero mythologies by comicbook artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, those crime-fighting chelonians known as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael have proven surprisingly resilient over the years: As the box office success of Warners’ 2007 animated feature “TMNT” demonstrated (before Viacom acquired the property in 2009), even a middling, downbeat Turtles vehicle could appeal to a new generation of young fans while maintaining a surprisingly strong hold on nostalgic adults. Since then, Nickelodeon’s new CG-animated series has become a big hit, which bodes well for this new live-action, motion-capture-enhanced enterprise, even if Paramount has had to weather no shortage of creative issues and production delays in the meantime.

Along the way, an executive decision was clearly made to play it safe, which in this case also means playing it silly. In keeping with the series’ general lightness of spirit, this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” runs counter to the gloomy, serious-minded tenor of so many recent superhero pictures, and it’s not afraid to mock itself or the filmmakers in charge. (“Aliens? No, that’s stupid,” Fox notes while recapping the plot for an incredulous listener.) That breezy, self-deprecating tone, however, never really translates into an infectious sense of wit or fun, let alone the sort of unabashed, unironic enthusiasm for the material you get from a geek showman like Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi. Liebesman, a cheerful demolition maestro (“Battle: Los Angeles,” “Wrath of the Titans”) who wields the camera like a blunt instrument, isn’t that sort of director, and the dull-witted screenplay, cobbled together by a trio of writers, wouldn’t reward his instincts even if he had them.

SEE ALSO: “Ninja Turtles” Retrospective: What Happened to the Actress Who Played the Original April O’Neil?

As if to allay viewer fears at the outset, the film kicks off with an animated prologue that dutifully explains how our four half-shelled heroes grew out of a wonky lab experiment (later revealed to involve a potentially life-saving mutagen), and then took up secret residence in the tunnels of the New York sewer system. Several years later, a crime wave is in full force in the city, led by a walking Cutco display called the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his massive Foot Clan, though they’ve started to get their asses whupped by a stealthy troupe of martial-arts-savvy vigilantes.

As enterprising young TV news reporter April O’Neil (Fox) soon discovers, those vigilantes are none other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — calm, disciplined Leonardo (played by Pete Ploszek, and voiced, with no added benefits, by Johnny Knoxville), laid-back Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), nerdy Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and hot-headed Raphael (Alan Ritchson). Although their wise rodent mentor, Splinter (Danny Woodburn), warns them against showing themselves above ground, these bickering bros can’t help fighting the good fight, any more than they can curb their raging pizza addiction or their ’80s surfer-dude parlance, which duly includes terms like “gnarly” and “cowabunga” (but not, sadly, “turtle power”).

April’s attempts to break the story get her laughed out of the newsroom, though it’s unclear why she doesn’t just prove her findings by showing her editor (Whoopi Goldberg) the photo she took of the Turtles on her camera phone. For that matter, it’s unclear why a nice man would deliberately start a deadly fire with his young daughter in the vicinity, or why an adrenaline overdose would serve as an effective cure for severe blood loss, to cite some puzzling later developments. But this is a mid-August blockbuster, not a hematology lesson, and so you might just as well take issue with the notion of an overgrown rat teaching himself martial arts from a conveniently discarded ninjutsu manual, or the even more whopping coincidence regarding April’s mysterious past connection to the Turtles and the scientist (William Fichtner, looking suspiciously William Fichtner-esque) who helped create them. Imagine if the Seven Dwarfs had once been Snow White’s childhood pets and you’ll have an idea of how ludicrous this particular conceit is.

SEE ALSO: 5 Reasons “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is the Summer’s Best Guilty Pleasure

There’s no point in quibbling with any of this, any more than there’s any point in trying to figure out what’s going on during a long, ridiculous and pretty enjoyable action sequence involving a truck, a few cars, several firearms, some snarky comic relief (Will Arnett) and a steep, snow-covered mountainside. (Turtle shells, it turns out, make excellent skis.) As the movie approaches its debris-scattering rooftop climax, which looks especially vertiginous in post-conversion 3D, the Bayisms begin to manifest themselves ever more perniciously: Somehow, even under the most harrowing, life-and-death circumstances, someone will find a way to turn the conversation around to the subject of April’s derriere. The Turtles themselves may well have funnier, less chauvinistic things to say — well, except Michelangelo, who offers some unwanted insight into the nature of turtle arousal — but most of their speedily delivered dialogue is lost amid the cacophony of clanging swords and the noisy swells of Brian Tyler’s score.

Through it all, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Bay, Liebesman and company are hitting all the iconic beats of the franchise, but not investing them with the sort of cleverness, gravitas or feeling that would allow this movie (and presumably, the two sequels in store) to coast along on something other than fan loyalty. Part of that is due to the appearance of the Turtles themselves: For all the undeniable sophistication of Industrial Light & Magic’s motion-capture system — which required the actors to wear skin-hugging body suits and helmets equipped with tiny high-def cameras — the push toward a more photorealist design has led to strangely off-putting and unapproachable results. They may look more hulking, more grotesque and certainly more like the products of advanced genetic mutation, but they also lack a certain engaging, intangible quality that Jim Henson’s rubbery-looking ’90s creations, though of an inferior technological grade, had in abundance. You might as well call it soul, and without it, any deeper viewer connection to these Turtles remains firmly at bay.

More thoughts below from Justin Chang on “Turtles”…

Film Review: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

Reviewed at Regency Village Theater, Los Angeles, Aug. 3, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release presented with Nickelodeon Movies of a Platinum Dunes production, a Gama Entertainment/Mednick Prods./Heavy Metal production. Produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Galen Walker, Scott Mednick, Ian Bryce. Executive producers, Denis L. Stewart, Eric Crown, Napoleon Smith III, Jason T. Reed.

Crew

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Screenplay, Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Evan Daugherty, based on the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” characters created by Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman. Camera (FotoKem color, Arri Alexa digital, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Lula Carvalho; editors, Joel Negron, Glen Scantlebury; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, Neil Spisak; art director, Miguel Lopez-Castillo; set decorators, Debra Schutt, Lisa Crivelli Scoppa; costume designer, Sarah Edwards; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), William Sarokin; sound designer, Jason W. Jennings; supervising sound editors, Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl, Laurent Kossayan; re-recording mixers, Terry Porter, Anna Behlmer; visual effects supervisor, Pablo Helman; special effects supervisor, Burt Dalton; visual effects producer, Susan MacLeod; ILM visual effects producer, Susan Greenhow; ILM animation supervisor, Tim Harrington; visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; additional visual effects, Image Engine, Base FX, Tippett, Virtuos, Hybride VFX, Atomic Fiction, Shade VFX, Lola VFX; stunt coordinator, David Leitch; stunt co-coordinator, Hank Amos; 3D conversion, Stereo D; associate producers, Basil Bryant Grillo, Marc Pappalardo, Bret Rowe, Lori Scowley; assistant director, Darin Rivetti; second unit directors, Pablo Helman, Leitch; casting, Debra Zane, Kathleen Chopin.

With

Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Abby Elliott, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Minae Noji, Whoopi Goldberg, Tohoru Masamune. Voice: Johnny Knoxville. (English, Japanese dialogue)

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  1. Thena says:

    Really great movie. I watch it everyday and laugh at Mikey all the time. Love the action and plot. I like the fact that the story of the turtles changed. We have all seen the 80s but the 14 turtles give us something else. I love love love this movie.

  2. erik says:

    I like this amazing kick butt movie

  3. poop says:

    More like tmnt troll style. Michael bay is full of hot dogs he wants to suck.

  4. Demetrio says:

    What a pompous useless review this was… The movie was a lot of fun. Period. Don’t listen to a boring drip of a review like this. Go see it for yourself and make your own decision.

  5. dan says:

    what i hate, is that a great film could be made from this. forget the fans of the original tmnt’s, it’s the vision that made it great. i just wish they’d give a film like this to a director and a script writer with some vision, instead of passing it on to people like this who seem to have the imagination of a teaspoon. megan fox as april o’neal, i mean really. i loved judith hoag in the first one, more personable, more real. megan fox is just a shiny meat rack, and that’s all.

  6. Paul says:

    Horrible movie! Clearly made for the current generation of kids. Stupid plot for one, two creepy facial features, three cracking jokes when clearly they didn’t need to be cracked in certain situations such as them falling down from a building. I hated this movie!! The original 1990s movie was way better than this one……..Michael Bay has done good with some R-rated action flicks and with the first transformers movie. The transformers movies after the first were horrible. Michael: Please do not remake movies from our childhood because clearly you destroy it for me and other audiences!

  7. Anthony Canepa says:

    you are frackin useless to this world, where the frack is Darwin you no talent piece of ****

  8. I’d rather watch this show than the rebooted movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqayLFxYNZI

  9. Orion Brown says:

    Turtle Power!!! I made this spoof of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer with some of my friends. Go easy on us it’s our first attempt at animation! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YJMD651Ljo

  10. John says:

    Umm, go see Guardians of The Galaxy instead and if you seen it – go see it again!!!

  11. Resigned Sidekick says:

    ” if the Seven Dwarfs had once been Snow White’s childhood pets and you’ll have an idea of how ludicrous this particular conceit is.”

    Yeah, Seven Dwarfs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… I can see how you got that comparison.

    • HeyLook says:

      You’ve very clearly missed his point. It was not a comparison, it was an analogy. And it’s not about the characters themselves but a plot point that the reviewer feels was shoehorned in apparently.

      Reading comprehension is your friend…introduce yourself.

  12. Orion Brown says:

    Hey, I made a spoof of the TMNT 2014 trailer, if you have time check it out… Go easy it’s my first time trying to make an animation lol https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YJMD651Ljo

  13. actionthatsucks says:

    So does that mean the reviewer like didn’t or didn’t like it? No definitive statement on that one.

  14. grotesque1 says:

    I loved it. The film is funny and has a lot of cool action. I do not expect anything more after the summer movie.

    • Demetrio says:

      Couldn’t agree more! It was a lot of fun. That’s what I wanted. People want everything to be the next LOTR! This is Ninja Turtles! It’s supposed to be fun!

  15. Nev Urpine says:

    “any deeper viewer connection to these Turtles remains firmly at bay”

    *RIMSHOT*

    • j0hana says:

      I almost had an heart atack waiting for the accion to beging ,to predictible, to much megan fox im going to need terapy after seeing this movie im still in shock. Omg with this movie.still in shock….i dint even bother to stay and see the end of it, i could not even sleep of how awful it was.
      I expected a good story ,

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