Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
When your four main characters may be described as mutant, turtle, ninja, teenagers, they only way to present them and their story is by embracing the absurdity. Exposed to a toxin as lab experiments, the quartet of reptiles escaped to the sewers and were raised by a rat, also exposed to the mutagen, and because said rat discovered a book about ninjitsu, he decided to train his shelled offspring.
That’s your premise, and a similar one (thank you for not making these heroes aliens) that legions of fans of all ages have accepted for decades, making the turtles an indelible part of popular culture. While this 21st century reboot directed by Jonathan Liebesman and clearly touched by the bombastic fingers of Michael Bay (executive producer), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles enjoys being silly and outrageous, it just gets way too bogged down with melodrama and banal grittiness.
In yet another example of a comic book-based heroic summer blockbuster turning to Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise as inspiration, TMNT starts with a long monologue about how the turtles won’t be accepted, presents a city plagued by a powerful gang, and welcomes an exotic, masked villain who has teamed up with an ambitious businessman.
We encounter these worlds through the eyes of frustrated reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who despite four years of journalism school and an on-camera reporting job at News Channel 6, isn’t taken at all seriously by anyone in her life save for her awkward, older cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett).
In typical sexist office fashion, O’Neil is made fun of by male colleagues and dismissed by her boss (Whoopi Goldberg), and her work life doesn’t get any easier when she discovers that vigilante heroes in the city may be giant turtles.
It’s all boring, derivative, and mighty serious. At long last, the turtles show up, and while they are so ready to break out and have fun, we (and they) have to endure another lengthy monologue rambling on about their upbringing. This of course comes after another lengthy expository discussion between baddies.
Gentlemen – I’m looking at you specifically Splinter (Tony Shaloub) – it’s not that complicated. In fact, the turtles entire history could be summed up in one sentence and using their three adjectival modifiers. The bad guys plan is equally simple: the clan’s leader Shredder to terrorize and release a poison, while his slimy businessman (William Fichtner) will sell the antidote.
At last, however, we get to the fun. And just like the audience, it seems the turtles are ready to let loose. They are teenagers after all, and part of the allure of their past iterations is that they are prideful, petulant, impulsive, curious, and fun-seeking. They are not so much flawed creatures as those yet fully formed, and together they are as much fun to watch bicker and plot as they are fighting and jumping and rolling down hills.
Physically distinct and realized in motion capture that takes a bit to get used to, the four Renaissance painter namesakes – Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo – each have quickly identifiable personalities and relatable attributes. It’s just when the humans come around, they get a little boring.
Slow to start, TNMT picks up abruptly during a spectacular set piece involving an out-of-control truck careening down a snowy mountainside being chase by three trucks and the turtles sliding, jumping, and flying.
It’s a brilliantly-realized escaped, but it also makes you sad that the whole film couldn’t be as much of a joyous thrill ride. Must we be bogged down by half-hearted attempts to raise stakes and explain not only what has happened, but what will?
Sure, it’s looking to appeal to kids (there are plenty of guns, but the turtles here are impervious), but they understand that the turtles are good and that Shredder and seedy corporate suits are bad. Liebesman struggles reconciling the grave with the fascinating, and his attempts to emulate Bay are obvious and poorly done. While thankfully the action is easy on the eyes, too many scenes involve jarring cuts, odd camera angles, and awkward pans (no one does sweeping pans quite like Bay).
Our heroes in a half shell have half an entertaining movie, and amid a wooden Mrs. Fox reduced to constantly asking for help and being hit on, a Mr. Arnett unearthing the small remnants of funny from terrible writing, and lengthy superfluous tangents, they are the true stars. Let’s just see more of them next time.