By Matthew McKibben | August 10, 2014
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Writer: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Evan Daugherty, based on characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune, and Whoopi Goldberg
After the Paramount logo appears on screen, the Nickelodeon logo is the next thing you see. After that, you see the one for Platinum Dunes, the production company owned by Michael Bay and responsible for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher, and the Friday the 13th remakes. As is true of the famous Disney castle logo or the scrolling comic book logo of the Marvel movies, these logo carries a certain amount of expectations of quality (or lack thereof). Let’s just say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lives up to the mediocre expectations set by the Platinum Dunes and Nickelodeon brands.
Jonathan Liebesman directed this movie, but I hesitate to credit him with any of the successes or failures of the movie since this movie seems like some kind of mutated love child of Nickelodeon brass, Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes remake factory, the long, weird history of the Ninja Turtles, and lastly, the director himself. Because the script is such a mess, I don’t want to run this guy over the coals too much. He is pretty capable of framing shots and getting decent(ish) performances from everyone in the movie.
The plot is pretty standard both for summer fair and for typical Ninja Turtle stories. With the help of a Japanese warlord nicknamed “The Shredder” (Tohoru Masamune), billionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) plans to unleash a deadly toxin over New York City (when will NYC catch a break?), but has his plans thwarted by struggling reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), and her pizza eating teenage mutant ninja turtle friends.
Megan Fox gets the top billing in the movie and is adequate as the hungry reporter growing frustrated by all the puff pieces she’s doing for her news agency. She’s not awful. (If you see enough bad movies, “not awful” is like a breath of fresh air.) This movie is called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it’d be more accurate to call it April O’Neil and Her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Friends, as the movie is largely told from her point of view and she’s given the most arching story arc in the movie. The movie begins and ends with her and that’s part of the problem. We watch this movie to see heroes-in-a-half-shell action, not heroes in a half plotted movie. I don’t care that April O’Neil is a struggling reporter on thin ice with her boss or whatever they call the playful banter between her and Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). I was promised ninja action, and that ninja action doesn’t even fully take place until well into the movie.
Once the Turtles enter the picture, the movie kind of settles into a fun, playful groove until the predictably over the top conclusion. I know there are fans out there who are getting bent out of shape on the character redesign and the (unnecessary) decision to interconnect everything in the TMNT universe. April O’Neil started out as a character whose sole purpose was to find new ways to get captured by the Shredder and the Foot Clan, so that the Turtles could come rescue her. It wasn’t until recently that the decision was made that April’s dad was somehow linked to the scientific experiment that eventually made the Turtles. The movie takes the next natural step in this progression by having the Turtles be former pets of April O’Neil and that she is the person responsible for saving them and the pet rat Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) from destruction at the lab. As I said, the decision to connect everything together is largely unnecessary, however that detail more or less worked for me in the movie.
What’s less clear to me is why Sacks and the Shredder are in cahoots. Because Sacks is kind of the guy calling all the shots in the movie, it relegates Shredder to a second tier status. I almost hate myself for making the comparison, but it’s kind of similar to how Darth Vader never fully seemed in command in the first Star Wars film. He was always answering to Tarkin and the other Imperial officers. A similar thing is happening here. Luckily, Lucasfilm remedied that situation in The Empire Strikes Back and I imagine that a second TMNT movie will be more centered around Shredder and his own plans. Despite only being seen in the shadows, Tohoru Masamune certainly commands the screen when he’s on it.
The voice work for the Turtles is, surprisingly enough, pretty outstanding. Johnny Knoxville voices Leonardo with a little more wiseass in his voice than has previously been demonstrated in the past, but he also gave the character the necessary heart to be seen as the leader of the group. Jeremy Howard plays Donatello in his best Jesse Eisenberg whine, but doesn’t go over the top with it. Although Donatello has always been the nerd of the bunch, I’ve always liked that he’s also capable of throwing down. It was an interesting choice to make him bespectacled, however the eyeware they gave him completely works for the movie. Alan Ritchson gave Raphael a lot of texture, I must say. Being part hot head and part guy with a heart of gold, Raphael is probably the most complex of all the turtles. Ritchson gave the most character typical performance of the bunch, but he more than commanded the screen. It’s Noel Fisher as Michelangelo who completely steals, though. Michelangelo has always been the goofball of the bunch, but each line he uttered in this movie is laugh out loud funny.
Tony Shalhoub as Splinter was pretty good. It occasionally came perilously close to being “yellow face” style dialects, but Shalhoub mostly kept it on the straight and narrow. Part of the problem is that you’re almost constantly aware that it is Tony Shalhoub talking. It was kind of distracting, but I’d imagine those not familiar with him will miss that aspect of it.
In most TMNT stories, Splinter usually connects directly to the Shredder’s backstory. In some stories, Splinter was the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi, a powerful warrior who was in love with a woman killed by the Shredder. In some variations, Splinter is Hamato Yoshi himself. In this, they decided that Splinter is just another part of the experiment run by Sacks. Going this route saps the natural anger Splinter feels towards Shredder and the reason he decided to teach the Turtles ninjitsu in the first place. So when Shredder and Splinter square off in this, you largely feel nothing about what’s happening. All that being said, this is the first time you’ve truly seen just how bad ass Splinter can be as a fighter. His fight scenes are the best and most fierce in the whole movie.
The rest of the fight scenes in this are well staged, though I hate how brief and how tightly filmed they are. I grew up on Jackie Chan movies, so I’m perhaps spoiled by the extended wide angled takes they employed in those movies. But here, it’s usually punch, punch, kick, on to the next thing.
The Turtle redesign didn’t bother me too much. It’s a little weird at first, but I think the big bulbous nose would have looked out of place in the movie they created. The Shredder’s redesign is less excusable. What makes the Shredder so formidable is that he’s a ninja who is an expert at his craft. In this movie, he’s just another hulking robot with too many tools at his disposal. I can’t tell you how many times he could have completely SHREDDED the person he’s fighting (often when they’re defenseless on the ground) but instead opts to just punch them repeatedly. You got some crazy claws, homeboy. Use them!
Will Arnett gives it his all, but is largely unnecessary in this. He’s there to serve as April’s love interest and work peer, but I think the movie would have been largely the same, perhaps better, without him.
The effects work is pretty decent. It’s probably not easy to render these turtles as actual upright walking/fighting beings, but they seemed believable enough. I think going the motion-capture route was the way to go on this, and, as limited as they are, you can tell that each actor is working with another actor.
I’m someone who grew up around TMNT fanatics, yet have never fully considered myself one. My brother was the one who had the toys, comics, and watched every episode. I liked it from afar. Even today, my son is a TMNT shirt wearing, kitana blade slashing TMNT freak who, as I write this, is sleeping with his brand new Leonardo plush toy. So although I don’t consider myself a fanatic, I do consider myself pretty knowledgeable on all things TMNT and really enjoy the Nickelodeon animated show of the same name. For my money, the Nickelodeon animated show is the best, most thoughtful versions of the story and characters. The movie plays to me like an extended version of the animated series. It’s not great on its own merits, but if you can view it from that vantage point, you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more. But as a movie on its own merits, it’s kind of dumb fun. It’s more dumb than bad, but I had a pretty good time watching it…twice now. Once at a screener and once with my TMNT fan son.