Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

teenage mutant ninja turtles

Directed By: Jonathan Liebesman
Written By: Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Evan Daugherty
Starring: Megan Fox, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Noel Fisher

3 Stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has everything going against it.  It’s directed by Jonathan Liebesman, the hack behind trash like Darkness Falls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and Wrath of the Titans.  It stars Megan Fox, an actress that nobody wants to take seriously.  And it’s produced by Michael “hate me cuz I’m me” Bay.  Throw in pre-production fan outrage, and you’ve got a classic case of nostalgic DOA.

I’m happy to report that all of the hullabaloo over this rebooted franchise has been in vain.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is nowhere near the disaster that everyone–myself included–predicted.  I’ll go as far as to suggest that it’s actually pretty damn good–a funny, exciting, and appropriately silly take on the four anthropomorphic terrapin brothers that should feel authentic to anyone who knows a thing or two about Ninja Turtles lore.  It has its fair share of frustrating goofs, but the target audience–children, to be clear–will be smiling and laughing too much to give such trivialities a second thought.  For the young and young-at-heart, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a blast.

I could spend a paragraph or two detailing particular plot elements, but in all honesty, it’s ground that has already been covered in past Ninja Turtles ventures.  New York is being terrorized by a crime organization known as the Foot Clan, led by a menacing Japanese warrior known only as “the Shredder” (Tohoru Masamune), and the namesake team of biped reptiles are on a mission to stop them.  Along the way, the Turtles run into “froth” reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox, who plays the role with just the right amount of smirk), she becomes indispensable to them, they kick some ass, and the rest is history.

Particularly original it is not, but in the good name of “reboots,” this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Liebesman and this three screenwriters had to start from the beginning, after all (2007’s TMNT attempted to reboot the franchise from the middle somewhere, to mostly middling results).  And to be fair, they did exactly what crybaby fans wanted after all the fuss over an early script that featured an “alien” spin on things.  As far as core story goes, it’s classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fare, take it or leave it.

Though this 2014 edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stands on its own as a unique incarnation of the franchise, it takes many a cue from the 1987 animated series.  Megan Fox portrays a yellow-trenchcoat version April O’Neil, and throughout the movie she’s escorted by Channel 6 camera-man Vern Fenwick (portrayed by Will Arnett, channeling himself), a character who doesn’t exist in any other version of this franchise.  Whoopi Goldberg has a small role as April’s cranky boss, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, her character’s name is Burnadette Thompson, a spin on “Burne Thompson.”  I don’t think they ever mentioned her name in the movie, but regardless, characterization is similar, so there’s another connection.  Still, there’s no mention of Casey Jones or Dimension X, and classic Shredder henchman Bebop and Rocksteady are nowhere to be found (though they’ll probably turn up in the recently announced sequel), so it’s not an absolute adaptation.

There are some irritating moments, to be sure.  They do stumble over the origin story a bit by giving April a little too much credit for the existence of the Turtles and their rat-daddy Splinter (Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub), which is kind of a sham.  Look, I’m not one to cry foul over a differing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles genesis–every incarnation of the franchise does things a little differently, and every one of them is completely ridiculous–but the version in this movie is the least plausible.  Case and point: Splinter learns martial arts from a textbook.  Not to nitpick, but come on.  That’s just nonsense.

But I digress–there’s little point in dwelling on the logical reasoning of a Ninja Turtles movie, so I can’t knock it too much for having the mythological depth of a Saturday morning cartoon.  And in spite of it’s lack of profundity, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets the most important things completely and absolutely right: the Turtles themselves.  Designed through the power of motion capture, the heroes in a half shell look absolutely awesome, nostrils and all.  They are all a little physically different, which means that they can (thankfully) be told apart from one another without the aide of colored bandanas (though these are still inevitably included).  More importantly, though, their personalities are spot-on.  Raphael is a hothead, the “classic” New Yorker; Leonardo is most sensible, therefore making him the default leader; Donatello is a techie (AKA the nerd); Michelangelo is still the party animal.  Except for Leonardo, who is oddly voiced by Johnny Knoxville, the Turtles sound like teenagers as well, and they’re funny.  They crack jokes with one another and sprinkle one-liners everywhere.  Michelangelo and Raphael even share a very special “cowabunga” moment in the latter part of the film.  What’s not to love?  Maybe the lone fart joke, but hey, can’t win ’em all.

Liebesman has done an admirable job bringing the Turtles to life once again, and this film is by and large his best effort to date.  Maybe it’s faint praise for someone who once made a movie about a killer tooth fairy, but it needs to be said, especially for those who were worried that Michael Bay’s looming presence would tarnish their “childhood memories,” Transformers-style.  Rest assured, seasoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan–this reboot plays it safe and does little to change what you presumably hold so dear.  The Shredder even gets to say “tonight I dine on turtle soup,” a moment where I may or may not have clapped in joy.   



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