Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014; Directed by Jonathan Liebesman)

It may simply be the sad fate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise that no single property produced can possibly live up to the promise of that glorious name. At once gleefully absurd and dully descriptive, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s title for their enduring comic-book creation conjures the suggestion of a rich popular culture cocktail, a mix of contemporary American youth culture, science fiction warnings of biological experimentation, and pop-orientalist martial arts enthusiasm. It evokes such runaway suggestions of a pulpy collage of superficial influences and generic elements that no single narrative text can contain them, let alone distill them into a wholly entertaining package.

The latest cinematic kick at the heroes-in-a-half-shell can falls pretty far short of this mark. This result may well have been expected by a film produced by blockbuster hucksterauteur (I just coined that phrase and sort of dig it) Michael Bay, directed by style-averse CGI-epic lens jockey Jonathan Liebesman, and starring the well-meaning but helplessly vapid Megan Fox as intrepid reporter and Turtle-ally April O’Neil. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes its selling job that much harder with a lazily ironic and detached tone that is dismissive of its own subject matter.

This undercutting approach is referenced explicitly in an early scene. In a New York City terrorized by a shadowy criminal gang called the Foot Clan, junior reporter O’Neil longs to produce Hard Hitting Journalism exposing this underground organization. Instead, she shoots fluff pieces about exercise on trampolines in Times Square. Expressing her frustration to her wisecracking cameraman Vern Fenwick (a strictly second-rate effort by Will Arnett), she’s told that people need something simple and positive in the face of serious events. People love a little bit of froth on their coffee, Vern tells her, though she replies that he probably means foam, and they digress.

This exchange seems like a clear hat-tip to the intent of this particular take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (as well as a touch of meta-frustration on Fox’s part at her pigeonholed career, for which she at least partly has Bay to thank). Other movies based on superhero comics may invoke political, philosophical or historical contexts and embed metaphors and subtexts about society and culture in their mass-appeal blockbuster frames, but we’ll be having none of that here. Indeed, as O’Neil begins to get closer to the quartet of reptilian vigilantes battling back against Foot domination of the streets from the subterranean shadows and more is revealed about their true, unbelievable nature, the movie snidely waves that nature away as silly nonsense. First April and then later Vern scoffs at the very concept of mutant turtles, who are ninjas, who are teenagers. It’s a ridiculous concept, but the movie can only openly express that thought if it embraces that ridiculousness, which this particular film is entirely too unimaginative to achieve.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not Macbeth or Hamlet, and no one expects it to be. But just as the Turtles need to learn to believe in themselves in order to defeat their arch-nemesis Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), this movie needs to believe in its own premise to survive and thrive. There is some measure of hope that such a belief is held on the more technical side of things. The Turtles themselves, animated via motion-capture technology, are wonderfully detailed creations, imbued with real personality and charisma. Leonardo (Pete Ploszek mo-caps, Johnny Knoxville voices) is a mature leader without being a stick in the mud, Raphael (Alan Ritchson mo-caps and voices) is a hard-bitten lone wolf who yearns for his own path. Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) loses his now-dated surfer-dude vibe but replaces that with a chatterbox, hip-hop-inflected awkward charm that feels contemporary but not inappropriate, while Donatello has evolved with tech culture and is pure hacker-nerd (Jeremy Howard and the CG animation team craft the entire role as a perhaps-dubious tribute to the late Harold Ramis).

Unfortunately, as compellingly rendered as its central heroes are, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles prefaces their appearance with not only derisive laughter but also hampers their adventures with poor plot turns. April’s entire interaction with her television newsroom colleagues seems facile and unrealistic to any viewer that knows anything about journalism (or at least anyone who has watched State of Play and Season Five of The Wire). She bursts into a meeting about the nightly newscast’s lead story and demands her evidence-free experiences with a Turtle attack on the Foot at the docks be given airtime instead of building her story and then bringing it to her editor (played by Whoopi Goldberg, speaking of brusque disbelief). Even when she does put together some material, she fails to show her editor a cellphone photo of the Turtles flipping over rooftops when it could have saved her job (though she does show it to the philanthropic billionaire ex-colleague of her dead scientist father who inadvertently created the Turtles and now has dark plans for the mutagens in their blood, played by a mostly-wasted William Fichtner). Multiple moments in the film’s first couple of acts beg questions and explanations that go unoffered, when a leaner, smarter movie streamlining our path to ninja fight scenes would be vastly preferable.

Once plot ceases to matter and these action sequences swing into top gear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets much more fun. A fantastic, careening chase down a snowy mountain slope (which is implausibly 45 minutes from Manhattan, but this is no geography lesson, after all) is the entire film’s high point, packed with ecstatic motion, exhilirating G-force shifts, and animating Turtle personality. It’s a model of what the entire film could have been, save for one sour, tasteless moment where Vern ogles April’s ass that sadly reminds us what much of the rest of the film really is.

As time passes and the TMNT property slides into the post-modern cultural fever swamp, it becomes ever more apparent that the flawed but good-humoured 1990 live-action feature film, with its Jim Henson Company creature work and slyly sophisticated perspective (Bush I Era street gang paranoia and War and Peace name-checks and all), remains the most successful adaptation in this most mainstream of formats. Liebesman and Bay get some key features right and whip up a froth (or is it a foam?) that admittedly tastes nice from sip to sip. Unfortunately, the coffee that this froth/foam tops off is strongly caffeinated and without flavour. To be honest, it’s hardly worth even the laboured analogy just constructed to describe it.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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