by Philip Price
It's somewhat disappointing this is going to likely end up as a one off. As a kid, I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as I suspect most did who will be writing reviews of this latest incarnation and were born between 1980 and 1993. We identified with one of the personalities, we latched onto one of the colors and had to have everything in that hue while collecting all of the action figures and devouring the animated series and Jim Henson movies. For me,TMNT were the definitive super heroes, the pre-cursor to Power Rangers that grew to be a place of nostalgia where one could always retreat and find comfort in something as discomforting as green ooze. I can even remember becoming excited for the post-Power Rangers attempt to rejuvenate the series with The Next Mutation, but I felt the same way as it seemed most did as the series only lasted one season. I grew up, things changed and I didn't hear from the Turtles for a period of time. It seems though that Nickelodeon is trying to capitalize on their recently purchased rights of the Mirage Studio characters as they have a new CGI animated TV series airing and have partnered with a few other studios to bring the heroes in a half-shell back to the big screen once again. It always felt like an inevitability that the Turtles would one day return in the form of a feature film (2007'sTMNT certainly didn't do anything for me), but I never had much ambition for what it could be or what direction it might go given the advancements in technology and the touchstones the early 90's films have become. It seems breaking that stigma has refused to give in as the press surrounding this latest live-action movie hasn't been the best. With each film I try to walk in with an open-mind and sense of optimism though (it's what I like to think keeps me distanced from the jaded critics who allow the amount of movies they see to change the perspective of how mainstream audiences might receive a film) and when it comes to something with as ridiculous a premise as turtles who are not only teenagers, but mutants and ninjas fighting a guy who now looks like a transformer you can only hope the filmmakers realize what they have for what it is. For me, Jonathan Liebesman's film is exactly that while doing its best to incorporate the look and feel of what super hero movies have become in this day and age.
I won't defend the movie by saying I had high hopes for it going in because even as casting announcements were made and production began I was convinced this was a back-burner type project in which the studios figured they could cash-in on without putting much thought into. Naturally, I was hoping I was wrong, but Megan Fox as April O'Neil in a Michael Bay produced film based on another iconic 80's brand? Seemed to scream a prime example of stunt casting. Not to mention the whole turtles as aliens idea that circled for a bit before Bay's Platinum Dunes shut down those rumors with clarification they wouldn't be ruining anyones childhood didn't bode well. When it comes to the final product though, things are much more in tune with what I remember from my adolescence than I could have imagined. Sure, I guess there was some level of expectation here in that it was low due to the fact it stars Fox (though I like to believe she's a good actress who just sells herself on her looks in parts she knows teenage boys will see) and that the turtles would be more special effect than living, breathing characters, but hey, at least hard-core fans will be happy to know William Fichtner (who can usually play a good villain, but is given nothing to work with here) simply plays the middle man between the foot clan and the big bad instead of having to yell racism. Sure, I was hoping this might turn out to prove the naysayers wrong, but somehow had to really believe it would end up being a mess of a movie that would now be laughed at by tweenagers for having a talking sensei rat teach four teenage turtles ninjutsu. After all, numbers don't lie and the fact 55% of Guardians of the Galaxy's audience last weekend was over the age of 25 seems to advocate the fact Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't necessarily making any new fans off this excursion. I couldn't tell you if the new animated series is any good as I haven't watched Nickelodeon in years, but if it has pulled in any of the younger audience the studios co-producing this thing can only hope their nostalgic parents decide to take a trip to the movies this weekend.
Enough talk about the politics surrounding this thing (though if you didn't have a context for this film before, I'm glad you do now) so let's get into why I think, for the most part, this film defies those who were determined to hate it from the get-go. First of all the characters are still intact, at least the main four, and the movie knows how to use them without over-using them. In fact, as I left the theater the one thing I wanted more of was the interaction between the brothers. This isn't to say the film focused too much on the human characters and didn't have enough of the titular heroes, but instead that the personalities and relationships between each of them were brought out in a way that was fun to witness and experience first-hand, while the secrecy around them in the movies New York City-setting also adds a veil of shadow to their presence in the film. There is a fair amount of action, including a trip down a snowy slope that, for what my money's worth, is a contender for one of the best sequences of the year so far. Second, there is the actual visual approach to the film. In short, it fits the style of what I remember the turtles being as a child. As of late, I've read that the original comics (which I have no knowledge of) were much darker stories made from the point of satire rather than seriousness, but what I took away from the hit animated series and the first set of live action films was an attitude right in line with Bay's directing style that Liebesman has clearly taken to mimicking here. The design of the turtles is the idea of what these things might look like were they to truly exist in a grounded reality (I realize how ridiculous that sounds), but the quick editing combined with stylized visuals and intent to bring out each of their major personality traits all combine to form a mix of what audiences expect today and the highlights of what we remember from yesterday. And third, Fox isn't that big of a deal which means she isn't a detractor. As per usual, she ends up delivering a passable performance (which might be worth more credit than she'll ever get here) while Will Arnett is only here to provide a little extra comic-relief when Mikey isn't around.
The big detractors from this thing naturally come in the form of story given what is being re-packaged here is the characters that have survived for so long now. It begins when we realize the one too many writers on this project (Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec usually work together while I imagine Evan Daugherty was brought in Damon Lindelof-style) have re-worked the origin story to include April in the development of how these turtles came to be mutants while keeping intact that Splinter (an on-set Danny Woodburn with Tony Shalhoub voicing) raised them and made them ninjas. It all seems a little too similar to the reincarnated Amazing Spider-Manstoryline in which a deceased father figure was in on a secret science experiment that he disagreed with and paid for with his life that has come around to haunt his offspring by their off-chance involvement. Still, I was able to look past these similarities and have a good time with experiencing seeing these childhood favorites on the big screen again. I will admit there was even a fair amount of giddiness in seeing Shredder take the stage again with an appreciation for the films unabashed eagerness to introduce this major villain rather than digging back into the annals of TMNT history to find some obscure bad guy that might be a prelude to the one we all want to see. What didn't mesh as well is the constant downfall of these types of films and that is the motivation of the bad guy. Fichtner's character Eric Sacks is the deceitful businessman who wants to be both the destroyer and savior of New York City while his mentor and father figure, the more menacing Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), is the source of the science that fuels the turtles and the only cure for the contagion they plan to release upon the city. Power, greed and money-the same ole things fuel the desire of the antagonists actions and results in paper-thin tension when our heroes finally do face their arch-nemesis despite the fact it looks super awesome.
Not much thought might have been put into it, but there is clearly a large amount of sincere effort here. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits the beats, no matter how predictable, and is still able to make them fun and deliver the audience a good-natured and mercifully swift time at the movies. As a fan of the animated series and original films I wasn't greatly offended by anything this new version had to offer other than maybe Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo (Pete Ploszek played him on set). Why they decided to bring in a name for the voice of the leader without doing so for the others seems an odd choice as the other turtles including Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) all have the personas to better fit the voices that come along with them though it is worth noting Leo is the least developed of the four in terms of personality and arc. All in all, this could have been a lot worse and I realize that sounds like an excuse of a criticism to say that it is good, but the fact of the matter is this isn't bad and it isn't great. Liebesman has crafted a paint by the numbers action/comedy that had me laughing at times, involved in the action at others and reminiscing throughout all while viewing through the lens of horrible 3D. Actually, the fact I still enjoyed the film despite this hindrance makes me appreciate it all the more.