I question the notion of being a so-called ‘fan’ of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ever since the dark, edgy 1984 monochromatic comic book series, this franchise has been re-invented and re-tooled so many times across various mediums, particularly in the difference between the original comics and 1987 cartoon that originally launched it to worldwide fame, that there are few connecting elements beyond the characters and setting. Chances are, everyone’s ideal picture of the series is very, very different, as new fans have been drawn in over the years with each revision.
This is why it’s so strange that so many fans have taken up arms against the Michael Bay-produced and Jonathan Liebesman-directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the big screen reboot of the beloved series that has currently made its home with a new CG cartoon on Nickelodeon. Many people have immediately written the movie off as a bastardization of the franchise, even before it came to theatres, and just seemed intent on seeing it as some sort of sacrilege from the get-go. That said, this doesn’t seem to have affected the movie’s large box office intake.
I’m fully aware of Michael Bay’s questionable treatment of the Transformers franchise on the big screen (hell, my review of Transformers: Age of Extinction certainly wasn’t glowing this year), but frankly, you have nothing to fear with this reboot movie. It’s just the new take for 2014, and it will be followed by other new takes in the years to come. The misguided purists will deny it, they’ll convince themselves it can’t possibly be true, but being an impartial reviewer with integrity, I’m not afraid to deliver the unpopular verdict– Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is actually pretty good. In fact, it’s even better than the three movies that came out in the 90’s, which haven’t held up nearly as well as these so-called ‘fans’ claim.
This new movie is certainly not fine art, nor is it this Summer’s best blockbuster, to be fair, but given that even the more adult-oriented original comic series was meant to be parody, and was never intended to take itself seriously, one should keep their expectations in check to begin with. What Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, is a fast-paced, rollicking good time at the movies that kids will love, and adults who are kids at heart will get a great kick out of.
Bottom line, give the movie a chance. If you come in with an open mind, and the simple urge to enjoy yourself, you’ll have fun.
One may justifiably worry about the all-important rapport between the titular Turtles being misrepresented here, but this movie doesn’t share a screenwriter with the Transformers movies. It was written by the guys behind Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Thus, again, fans have nothing to worry about.
As much as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has continually changed and evolved since its comic book origins, a common theme that has never been forsaken by the franchise is that of family and brotherhood. Because of this, the Turtles have always been close, freely interacting and sharing conversations and jokes even amidst the most heated of battles. This is still true in the reboot movie, where the fun and often humourous interactions between the Turtles is still done very well, and with plenty of heart.
The fundamental personalities associated with the Turtles are still intact as well. Leonardo is still the brave leader, Raphael is still the tough bruiser, Michaelangelo is still the goofy stooge, and Donatello is still the smart, resourceful nerd. Donatello’s more exaggerated nerd persona sometimes feels a bit on-the-nose in this movie, with the character now sporting taped-up glasses, an Urkel-esque voice, and constantly carrying around a pack of gadgets, but he’s still as good with a bo staff as he ever was, so that’s ultimately a minor nitpick.
Michaelangelo, as usual, is the real highlight, and thankfully feels more current than his 90’s-flavoured surfer dude persona that came before, even if there is a clever way to bring in one of the Turtles’ key 90’s catchphrases with him later in the movie. Michaelangelo is consistently funny and often adorable, and his potentially creepy crush on April O’Neil is played to surprisingly amusing effect. In fact, Michaelangelo is really the heart of these new Turtles, and the best way to remind the audience that the characters are supposed to be teenagers, despite their new hulking, imposing appearances.
Raphael’s underlying conflict of struggling with teamwork is touched on briefly, but it could have been a bigger issue here than it ultimately was. There is a point where Raphael gets his wish of not having to be bound to his brothers, and it goes on exactly the plot beat that you imagine it will, making the whole character conflict feel a bit uninteresting. Even in the previous CG 2007 movie, TMNT, this arc was done pretty well exactly the same way, only without Raph actually becoming a standalone vigilante in this case.
Leonardo is the one Turtle that doesn’t have much of a character beyond being, ‘The Leader’. It’s never even made clear as to why Master Splinter put Leonardo in charge, since he doesn’t seem to display any sort of traits that would suggest he can keep Raphael in line, or keep Michaelangelo on task, or tell Donatello to stop worrying so much. He’s just the leader because he’s always been the leader. Considering that he’s voiced by Jackass star, Johnny Knoxville, it’s sort of disappointing that Leonardo doesn’t work as a standalone character on his own merits, and is wholly dependent on the personalities of the other Turtles.
Beyond the Turtles, Master Splinter is the character that feels most consistent with his prior portrayals in appearance, being a short, Fu Manchu-style humanoid rat once again, even if he now wears yellow instead of purple. The addition of a strong, whip-like tail also works to illustrate just how Splinter could be an imposing figure of authority to these four behemoths, despite his small size, and also allows him to better participate in a couple of great action scenes, with a brutal scrap against The Shredder being a particular highlight.
There is one core element of Splinter’s backstory that has been changed from prior portrayals, and it’s bound to piss off fans, especially since it eliminates his connection to Shredder that’s often played up in other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles media. Fair warning. Granted, it’s the one way that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t bother to contrive coincidences to tie together the arcs of the lead cast though. You’ll see what I mean.
Oh, and speaking of Shredder, this is another character that has actually been simplified from prior portrayals. His backstory is gone now, and he simply stands as the jerk villain who wants to take over the world, just because. To this end, he enlists a corporate proxy, Eric Sachs (a reference to Shredder’s Japanese birth name, Oroku Saki), who basically funds and provides resources to Shredder’s Foot Clan, who are no longer robots nor ninjas, but are instead more of a private military force that are terrorizing New York. No, this isn’t a spoiler, since, even though the movies try to make Sachs a twist villain, the trailers already gave away that Sachs runs The Foot, and is a bad guy. The movie even gives a token explanation as to why they’re called the ‘Foot Clan’, even if it feels like a stretch to address mercenaries like they’re, well, ninjas.
In fact, if I’m being honest, nobody in this movie feels like a ninja! The Turtles are re-interpreted as massive brutes who have some degree of martial arts techniques, and skill with their trademark weapons (katanas for Leonardo, sais for Raphael, nunchuks for Michaelangelo, and a bo staff for Donatello), but who normally just beat The Foot on brute force, kicking them through vehicles and punching them across rooms. Likewise, Shredder is shown to be a skilled fighter, but even he largely relies on his Iron Man-like Shredder armour to do most of his fighting, making him also a tall and super-strong bruiser, one that is literally covered in blades, which he can fire and magnetically retract at will. Shredder looks awesome in this movie, don’t get me wrong, but again, his portrayal here is very far removed from the idea of being a ninja or a samurai or anything of the sort.
The only character who displays any degree of cleverness in the action scenes in fact is Karai, Shredder’s lieutenant, and a character that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans should easily recognize. This is unfortunate, because Karai actually kind of sucks at fighting in this reboot movie I’m afraid. Every time she runs into the Turtles, she’s quickly thrown into a wall and knocked out. It makes you wonder how she earned the respect of Shredder at all in this new universe.
It just continues to show that hard-hitting action is front and center in this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. If characters aren’t cracking skulls or cracking wise, they’re not that interesting.
Megan Fox’s April O’Neil is actually not terrible, and is given one of the better performances of Megan Fox’s career so far (believe it or not, Fox actually manages to be kind of funny and charming here!), but she’s still simply a spectator to the Turtles and the plight of New York, rather than a genuinely influential presence, even if she does give the Turtles a means to move the plot forward every so often. Vern Fenwick, April’s cameraman from the cartoon, whom Will Arnett portrays, is also simply played as an oblivious sidekick to April. Arnett manages a few funny lines, but he really isn’t given much to do beyond question April’s sanity, and eventually question his own when he actually finds out that April hasn’t lost her mind on the whole turtles who are ninjas and mutants and also teenagers thing.
Again, there’s a forced connection between April and Sachs and the Turtles that didn’t necessarily need to be there, but it’s tolerable, and it does at least attempt to make April more than just the eyes of the audience. Like I said, it changes a few elements of the characters’ backstories, but never in such a way that would absolutely ruin them. Don’t worry, the Turtles aren’t aliens here. In fact, the script slips in a funny throwaway line at one point, mocking this clearly false internet rumour that really accentuated the fan outcry.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a clear set of character priorities, and they won’t be priorities that every fan agrees with. As far as modernized, rebooted big screen takes go though, the movie makes sure to get the important things right, namely the interactions between the Turtles themselves. Splinter and Shredder have seen some tweaks, yes, but they’re still appealing characters if you keep an open mind. Even April still manages to be kind of fun, when Megan Fox remembers to act.
The style may be different, but don’t worry; This is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and what people love about these characters is still effectively represented in this movie.
Despite some of its bold character alterations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t really rock the boat in terms of the fundamental plot. Shredder (and in this case, Eric Sachs as well) has some nefarious plan for New York, and the Turtles have to stop him and his Foot Clan, while April O’Neil captures the story. Basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fare.
The only surprising difference, and something that’s a bit refreshing, frankly, is that April is never kidnapped in this movie. In fact, she’s actually portrayed as being able to handle herself pretty well, following the same sort of ‘too dumb to quit’ modernization path that recent Lois Lane portrayals have updated that similar woman reporter character with, only, minus the abductions that still seem to happen to Lois Lane. April still isn’t any kind of fighter, but she’s almost more reliable for saving the Turtles than the Turtles are for saving her in this case.
Anyway, the serviceable story works, and it does a good job of re-introducing audiences to a new brand of Turtles, effectively balancing familiarity with novelty. This basic Turtles-vs.-Shredder plot may have been done to death in lots of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles media already, but at least it doesn’t give audiences too much to absorb too quickly, beyond the innately far-fetched premise that this series has always had.
The only major problem with the story is the twist reveal of how exactly Shredder and Sachs are going to realize their plans. It won’t stick out to kids at least, who will merely love the Turtles and Shredder duking it out for the fate of New York. To adults though, there’s a pretty big hole (several, actually) in the bad guys’ scheme. Without spoiling anything, it’s a plan that they clearly haven’t thought through, and one that incorporates a certain step provided by Sachs that is supposed to be top secret, but actually makes it blatantly obvious to the world that Sachs is behind everything. Call it a hilariously easy contingency betrayal by Shredder, but considering that Sachs is supposed to be this brilliant scientific genius, does he really not see a problem with drawing so much obvious attention to his plot?
In any case, this isn’t a difficult movie to digest, and it can just be easily treated as a popcorn movie. Yes, there’s a bunch of plot holes, but frankly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been filled with plot holes in any of its media, so this reboot movie really shouldn’t be singled out for that. It’s a straightforward tale, but it’s fun, and it effectively brings the characters’ big screen incarnations into the 21st Century for the first time. That’s the bottom line.
Jonathan Liebesman certainly doesn’t have a good directing record, having helmed blockbuster misfires like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and Battle: Los Angeles, with his best work to date probably being middling sequel, Wrath of the Titans. The worry behind Liebesman at the helm is, frankly, a lot more justified than the worry behind Michael Bay being a producer.
Fortunately though, Liebesman appears to have improved here. He directs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reasonably competently, and has gotten a lot better at framing the fast-paced action and enjoyable character moments alike. He still doesn’t quite have the flair of a worthy blockbuster director, but at least he’s getting better at realizing these big Hollywood movies.
The only time that Liebesman’s directing trips up is when he incorporates shaky cam and otherwise sloppy shot panning, which is especially noticeable during a few action scenes. When Liebesman realizes a scene well here, he realizes it really well in all fairness, with scenes like the battles against Shredder, and a much-advertised scene where the Turtles are fighting while falling down a snow-covered hill, being amazing spectacles to behold. In fact, that snow cliff scene is one of the most exciting and most creative action scenes of any movie this Summer!
Where Liebesman’s more flubbed shooting moments really become a problem though is in the 3D cut of the movie. The shaky cam in this cut will be unbearable to people who suffer from motion sickness, and while Liebesman occasionally makes sure to accommodate the studio-mandated 3D-heavy scenes in some cases, in other cases, it seems like he just couldn’t be bothered, which suddenly makes the movie’s style more uneven.
In the hands of a more skilled blockbuster director, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could have been a more consistent visual standout, but at least this can easily be declared Liebesman’s best directing work to date, for what that’s worth.
There’s nothing to be said about much of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ soundtrack. It’s a pretty typical cut-and-paste Hollywood blockbuster score, with nothing remarkable about its action-flavoured beats. The one exception of course, is the new rap number, “Shell Shocked”, obviously a cute nod to the infamous Vanilla Ice rap tune, “Go Ninja Go” from the former movie series’ second offering, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze.
Where “Go Ninja Go” is downright hilarious in its awful-ness by today’s standards though, “Shell Shocked” is just kind of boring in comparison. Kids may enjoy bopping along to its techno-fused beat, but adults will find nothing special about it in any fashion, despite the movie intentionally wanting to play it up as a tongue-in-cheek single.
At least the movie’s actual sound design is done well though, particularly if you opt for an UltraAVX 3D showing, or something of the sort. The impacts felt by the blows of the Turtles are crushing and well-realized, and the environmental carnage helps intensify the action scenes further. Even with regular theatre speakers, the action and destruction sounds reasonably satisfying, without being overwhelming and obnoxious.
Longstanding Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans may take issue with the drastic redesigns of the Turtles themselves, even if familiar elements like their bandana colours from the cartoons and respective weapons remain intact. With that said, the Turtles are very effectively realized in motion-capture, and it’s easy to forget that they’re special effects. Their charming rapport and striking personalities make them feel like they’re actually there, despite the innately absurd premise of the franchise.
The same is true of Master Splinter, who is an effect, but is performed well thanks to the motion-capture work, making him feel like a more believable presence. Shredder is perhaps the most tangible character however, since he’s actually being played by a person in a costume. Shredder is likely the character that even the most picky of fans can’t argue with here, since he really does look amazing, easily being the most menacing portrayal of the character to date!
Even with Liebesman really needing a few lessons in shot framing every now and again, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still has no shortage of cool-looking action too. Some of the action scenes feel easier to follow than others, particularly given the obnoxious shaky cam in certain scenes, but at least everything looks cool and is appealing to the eyes.
If anything is a pleasant surprise with the visuals though, it’s the 3D presentation, which is actually pretty good for the most part. Again, some of the shaky cam and odd lighting works against the 3D within certain set pieces, but beyond that, it really does make the movie more immersive, and it does lend itself well to the action scenes, with environmental debris being kicked around the audience, and weapons and projectiles really appearing to fly out of the screen at the viewer, without feeling cheesy and overdone.
The kinetic action framing and shaky cam makes the 3D cut very unfriendly to people with weak stomachs and motion sickness, so if you suffer from either of those, you may want to stick with just watching the movie flat in 2D. If you really enjoy 3D movies and want the full effect though, I highly recommend shelling out for a 3D ticket in the case of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, since the 3D really does make the movie more gripping, fun and exciting, surprisingly so!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is no masterpiece, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the naysayers would have you think. It’s unfortunate that having Michael Bay’s name attached to a blockbuster in any capacity (not even as a director, just as a producer in this case!) just immediately makes bile fly in various fan communities, but let’s be rational adults here. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a good reboot for a dated series of movies, and it’s a fun blockbuster on its own merits.
It’s fair to say that this is not your Daddy’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yes. Again though, this series has almost never been consistent in tone or style between revisions, so why cling to any one version of it? This is what the movies are like now, and one day, they’ll no doubt be rebooted again, and present something likely even more daring. I’m not claiming that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be timeless, and its previous movie series sure isn’t, but now, in 2014, it’s a solid movie.
So, the bottom line remains– Give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a chance if you’re interested. If you love this series, or just fun, crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks in general, seriously, give this movie a chance. There’s plenty of stylish fun to be had, especially in the 3D cut, and the core fundamentals of why so many people love this franchise are all present and accounted for in this big screen reboot.
It’s a difficult enough prospect to effectively engage moviegoing audiences with a premise like the dubious one in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Do respect the fact that this experience really could have ended up a lot worse, hm?
- Great Turtle rapport
- Fun action
- Visually well-realized
- Villains' plot is absurd
- Some faulty camerawork
- Human personalities are dull