“So… They’re aliens?”
“No. That would be stupid. They’re reptiles!”
Despite what some might tell you, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are not a sacred and revered property; they’re a bunch of silly kids who kick butt and talk smack like Spider-Man on a sugar buzz. This irreverence carries over to their newest incarnation, a Michael Bay-produced romp in which the action is expensive (yet boring), and the turtles are silly and quippy (but only sporadically funny). Unfortunately, the whole film has the stench of a corporate product, scientifically designed to push nostalgia buttons while offering almost nothing of interest for… Well, anybody.
In what will certainly make the hardcore fans stomp their feet in an impotent rage, some liberties taken with the classic formula change things up for the better; rather than meeting intrepid reporter April O’ Neil (Megan Fox, who can’t hold a candle to Superman’s Lois Lane) by chance, there’s instead a heartfelt element of destiny to their friendship. I won’t spoil it here, because I’m cool like that, but it is pretty dramatic, sweet, and emotional… Or at least if would be, if Megan Fox cared to inject even a modicum of care into her role; April O’ Neil in this film is a static character who conveys emotion by never changing her facial expression and sometimes whispering her dialogue for no obvious reason. The more cynical fanboy nerds had already assumed this to be the case, but I dared to believe, and paid the price for it. Will Arnett also loses points for his role as The Annoying Guy who does nothing more interesting than allude to better things by eating a mustard and parmesan sandwich.
Seriously, she wears this expression for the whole film.
Interestingly, and thankfully, the titular turtles fare much better. Their characters (and their arcs) are nigh-identical to the 1990 TMNT film, of which this is ostensibly a remake; Donatello is the engineer, Michelangelo is the would-be lover, Leonardo is the smart leader, and Raphael is the ass-kicking rogue who ruins things and then fixes them with humility and teamwork. The turtles are full of silly banter and a metric ton of one-liners of varying quality. Their relationship to their father figure/sensei, the rat Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), is the emotional high-point of the film, and when The Shredder and his villainous Foot Clan bear down on their sewer lair, the intensity is palpable.
Speaking of The Shredder, the villains are as cookie-cutter as can be, but it doesn’t really matter in a film like this; they’re bad guys and we want to see them get punched. Hard. And they do, thanks to fight choreography that really puts a spotlight on the combat potential of giant turtles with muscles bigger than their heads. This being the case, it’s kind of a shame that too much of the action is dedicated to over-the-top stunt sequences accomplished with obvious CGI. While the sight of several cars sliding down a snowy hill is exciting in its own way, it’s less interesting than when the turtles use their hulking mass to send a Foot soldier (Foot footsoldier?) flying thirty feet into a breakable object with a powerful shoulder tackle. It’s a case where having a bigger scope for the action winds up being detrimental to the experience.
They used to be so cute!
Director Jonathan Liebesman loves the turtles, but it’s not enough. His respect for the spirit of the franchise shows in the heroes’ interactions with each other and their hard-hitting fight scenes, as well as the character designs; while everybody has an opinion on this film’s motion-captured version of the turtles, the film eases the audience into their appearance so that we know them before we see them, and, of course, so that the younger kids don’t get scared. By the way, The Shredder, though possessing no character at all, looks very cool. His armor is like a cross between Silver Samurai and Freddy Krueger, and he proves himself a force to be reckoned with.
TMNT 2014 has a bunch of good ideas, but they never come together in a meaningful way, as if the director and the producers were pulling in opposite directions, the director pushing for an intimate martial arts tale with comic protagonists (a remake of the 1990 film) and the producers pushing for Transformers-lite, a big dumb spectacle to please the audiences who might otherwise find a team of anthropomorphic ninja reptiles to be “too cerebral” for them. The result is a strangely paced mish-mash of good ideas, hanging plot threads, half-developed characters, and an ultimately empty and unsatisfying experience. And in the biggest insult of all, despite being set and shot in New York City, when Splinter gets the turtles pizza, he gets it from Pizza Hut, the worst pizza in the world. Seriously? Pizza Hut makes Domino’s looks like Totonno’s. Gimme a break.
Instead of seeing this movie, wait for the home video release and enjoy it with a bowl of turtle soup.