The TMNT franchise has been a pop culture mainstay for almost three decades, beloved by generations of fans. I’m one of them, I watched the cartoon show, had all three live-action movies on VHS, I played with the toys and read the comics, etc. However, if I’m gonna be frank here, nostalgia has never done anything for me, and looking back at a lot of the older TMNT movies and shows, they don’t hold up as well. In fact, the only TMNT movie that could be considered good is the original 1990 film, and while that film still has some problems (the fact that the Turtles don’t defeat the Shredder, as well as the lack of a character arc for Casey Jones despite a set-up early on), the film has solid direction, clever writing, good fight scenes with great costume designs and enough charm to make up for its faults. After that, The Secret of the Ooze is something I can only enjoy because of how bad it is, the third film is just bizarre and the 2007 animated film is bad, but mostly forgettable. Despite this pattern, I was optimistic for the reboot, and while I can’t say I was impressed with the trailers or the Turtle designs, I took the support from creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman to heart and the TV spots for the film were much better than the full trailers.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles begins with a frustrated April O’Neil (Megan Fox) who is tired of dealing with fluff news stories. One day, an opportunity arises when she finds out that there is a group of vigilantes who have been stopping the various operations of the paramilitary domestic terrorist group, The Foot Clan. It turns out that these vigilantes are a team of four brothers, Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), who are mutated turtles trained in the art of ninjutsu by their master (a rat) Splinter (Tony Shalhoub),oh and they’re also teenagers. Through a series of events, April works with the aptly named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to take down a sinister plan by The Foot Clan and their leader, The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune).
The thought that kept going through my mind since seeing the film was not so much whether it was a disaster or not, it was how much of a disaster the film was. When you break down the film to its most basic elements, there is practically nothing that works in the film.
First, the script simply does not work on any level. The script has three names to its credit, two of which have written several films together, but if you try to sum up everything that happens in the film, it feels like it was written over a weekend by one guy powered up by an unlimited supply of coffee. It is easily one of the laziest screenplays in recent memory. It is full of nonsensical and illogical plot point after plot point with conveniences and coincidences gluing it all together whenever it doesn’t rely on pointless and shoehorned references. One baffling aspect of the script is just how heavily it borrows from The Amazing Spider-Man, including aspects of the origin, the villain’s plan and the final action sequence. If the film had to rip-off something, couldn’t it at least rip-off a good movie? And every moment that isn’t just a retread of that film is as bland and generic as it gets. It’s like they took a superhero script, and replaced all the names. The villains have nothing to them, their plane makes no sense and it shows heavy signs of reshoots (more on this in my Side Note). Even the Turtles’ characterizations are very one-dimensional and shallow, and the only thing that really jumps out of the screen is how obnoxious and “frat-boy-ish” they turned out. Not that it really ends up mattering so much because they ultimately end up as supporting characters in their own film. One other element that shows the laziness of the script is the new origin.
If you consider the new origin a spoiler then skip the rest of this paragraph. So, in this film it is revealed that the Turtles and Splinter were part of an experiment to create an antidote. This experiment was held by April O’Neil’s father (Paul Fitzgerald) and Eric “I’m-not-the-bad-guy-seriously-I’m-not” Sacks (William Fichnter). During their time in the lab, a young April takes care of them, give them their respective names, and occasionally feed them pizza (because everything must be connected!). Something happens, which results in the lab catching fire, and April saves them all in time, and releases them into the sewers to safety (I guess). In the sewers, Splinter randomly finds a book on “The Art of Ninjutsu” and decides that it would be a great idea to learn it and then teach it to the turtles because why not, right? I can’t help but feel Christopher Nolan is partially responsible for this recent trend, but I am really tired of seeing movies have this obsessive need to explain everything. Seriously, think about the fact this movie felt the need to explain why the Turtles like pizza. You know, it’s not like pizza is one of the most popular foods in the world or anything, especially with teenagers. It’s also shockingly and depressingly uninspired seeing Splinter learn ninjutsu from a book. Not that learning from books is a bad thing, but it rarely makes for good cinema. Imagine if Bruce Wayne just picked up some books on vigilantism and self-defense techniques. Imagine if Rocky Balboa read a few books on boxing. Imagine if Luke Skywalker just spent his time on Dagobah reading some old writings from the Jedi Order. Imagine if Michael Dorsey just read some feminist literature and self-help books. You see what I mean? It just does not make for compelling storytelling.
Second, the direction by Jonathan Liebesman is atrocious, and the production is incredibly lackluster. The one positive thing I could say about the film is that it goes by very fast, but while it is quickly paced, the resulting film moves so fast that it never gives a chance for the characters to take a breath. The film just keeps on going and going and going, and none of the characters are allowed to just be characters. It was all plot driving characters, instead of characters driving plot, and every conversation is there for either expositional purposes or to simply keep the plot going. I would say the action is well done, but the action sequences are mostly boring. The one sequence where they are going down a mountain could have been a great scene, but it went on way too long. There is hardly a moment where the camera stops moving, and times when it is so unnecessarily shaky, to the point where it’s often hard to tell what’s going on. The designs of the Turtles and Splinter are just ugly and unappealing. It feels like a combination of three different designs, one by someone who made them overly cartoon-y, one by someone who made them too realistic and one by someone who really, really, really hated Donatello (can you tell he’s the nerdy one?). The overall aesthetics are even more ugly and hard to look at. It was completely tone-deaf, unaware of whether the film was meant for kids or adults, which is the result of practically every aspect of the production being a contradiction of each other. The CGI is OK at best, but hardly meets the standard we should expect, especially since we’ve had many films with CG characters in live-action footage this year alone. The voice acting was adequate, but Johnny Knoxville and Tony Shalhoub were miscast. It also comes across as distracting because none of the other Turtles are given a different voice from their motion-capture performer. Honestly, Megan Fox as April O’Neil is probably one of the least bad things about the movie. At least I could tell that she way trying. I even felt kind of bad for her because throughout the film she’s scared out of her mind and on one side you have Michelangelo constantly calling dibs on her like she’s the last slice of pizza and on the other side, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) being a huge creep on her who will not take “no” for an answer. A TMNT movie should not make me feel this uncomfortable.
As you can tell I don’t have much good to say about the film, but really I could have forgiven a lot if the film simply gave me some sense of connection, and that is where the film fails the hardest. There’s one good scene in the film, which you might’ve seen by now, where the Turtles are in an elevator getting ready to battle The Shredder. Things are tense, everyone is out of breath and tired, and then Michelangelo starts making a rhythm with his nunchaku and after a while, everyone joins in. What makes this scene work is that without a single line of dialogue (and with one static shot no less), we get a real, believable sense of comradery and friendship that the brothers share. This is the one time where the film just took a break for a moment and just allowed the Turtles to be the Turtles with no distractions. It was fun, it was funny, and it actually gave me a connection to the Turtles. However, this is the only scene where I got a sense of connection. I don’t feel a connection between April and the Turtles (which is strange given how much impact their origin should have on this), I don’t feel a connection between April and Vernon, I don’t feel a connection between the Turtles and Splinter, I don’t feel a connection between Eric Sacks and The Shredder, and I don’t feel a connection between Splinter and The Shredder (again, strange given how Splinter seems to know everything in the movie and acts like him and Shredder are mortal enemies, even though nothing supports that). By the time the movie was over, I had a hard time believing that any of the characters really knew each other. If I felt any connection between the characters, I really could have forgiven many of the films’ faults, to a degree at least, but the film just does not have enough faith in their characters to allow them to be the focus. It’s really a shame.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should by no means be considered a “raping (or in less offensive terms ruining/destroying) of one’s childhood,” but it really is shocking just how little faith the film had with its own subject matter in that it took a property with such personality and energy and turned it into a poorly written, generic superhero movie that just happens to involve the Turtles. It lacks the charm that made previous installments worth going back to, and instead insultingly panders to its audience. The combination of its gritty aesthetics doesn’t mesh well with its otherwise ridiculous story and its cringeworthy attempts at “comedy.” It really says a lot about the film that the only good things I can say about a film can still be considered a negative, in this case, it’s short running time and quick pace sacrifices many opportunities to flesh out characters and letting them interact with one another. Not to mention the painfully generic script bringing back memories of 2011’s Green Lantern and the lack of faith and respect to the source material brings to mind a certain 2010 live-action film that also happened to be based on a Nickelodeon cartoon show (you know the one). Those comparisons may seem harsh, but they are warranted. While some fine performances, a couple decent lines and the elevator scene are things I’ll say in the movie’s favor, they don’t come close to saving the mess that is everything else. Even if this film is simply trying to be a “fun kids movie,” that gives it no excuse for its lazy writing, poor direction and abysmal production value (seriously, there were moments where I could see some green reflection on the actors’ faces from the green screen). In a world where we have a critically acclaimed movie based on Legos and a funny, yet emotionally resonant (and with great attention to character no less) Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there is no reason whatsoever for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be as bad and sloppily put together as it is. There, you have a thorough review on TMNT that neither directly compares to the original films nor brings up Michael Bay at any point. I think I deserve a medal. In all seriousness though, just watch the cartoon playing Nickelodeon, it’s really, really good.
Side Note: There are some elements that I feel like I had to address, but they are very spoiler-y in nature, so this Side Note will be full of major spoilers. There is your warning. Skip this if you don’t want to be spoiled. The Shredder is a poor character from every angle. It is clear from watching the film that at some point William Fichnter was meant to play The Shredder before fans went crazy. Now, it turns out that Eric Sacks is a “student” of The Shredder (even though he doesn’t do anything that would imply that he ever learned anything from his so-called master). It turns out that The Shredder is some random guy who leads The Foot Clan. You only see him a few times out of costume and he is standing in the shadow every single time. No exception whatsoever, and for no reason too. Perhaps it is to hide the scars, but from what I could tell, they weren’t too bad. It’s not like hiding The Shredder’s real face added anything, there was no reveal, no payoff, and it’s just a pointless attempt at being mysterious without having any understanding as to why a character would need to be treated with that level of mysteriousness. Also, you never see The Shredder outside of his costume in the same scene with the Turtles or Splinter, and you never even see him get into the Shredder suit. These scenes feel so disconnected and they only serve to unnecessarily complicate things even more. I also don’t recall hearing the line that Eric Sacks said in the first trailer, “Heroes are not born, they are created. That’s what your father and I were trying to do.” Even if it was in the movie, it would not make any sense in context. Not that much made sense in the movie anyway. You see, the plan is that Eric Sacks developed an antidote for a deadly gas that they plan on exposing to New York on an antenna, and the government would pay them money for them to create an antidote, which they already have. This way, Eric Sacks will become rich, or “stupid rich” as William Fichnter puts it. Oh, and somewhere in there The Shredder and The Foot Clan take over the city or something. This is what leads to the final showdown on top of the building, which again is ripped right out of The Amazing Spider-Man. Also (I swear, this is the last thing I’ll talk about), another example of just how poorly written the film is that there is a moment near the end of the film with Raphael. The antenna is going down and the Turtles are all on it; it’s the whole “the-heroes-are-about-to-die-and-have-their-final-moment-before-it’s-revealed-that-they-don’t-die” moment. Everyone says their thing, usually a joke, and out of nowhere Raphael has this big monologue where he goes on talking about how he only acts aggressively because he was afraid and how he can now openly show his love and appreciation for his brothers. It’s actually a solid monologue, but what does the film do to build up to this moment with Raphael? Nothing, absolutely nothing. There are maybe one or two lines, but nothing that showed Raphael trying to grow as a character and appreciating his brothers more. That is how lazy this script is. There, it’s all done, now I don’t have to think about this movie ever again…crap.