“The new Ninja Turtles movie is pretty much everything as advertised on the tin, with some kinetic and inventive action to boot. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Release date: August 8, 2014 (USA)
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Stars: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville
Running time: 101 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
Hey, I’m just as baffled as you are that I’m giving a pass to the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. For months, the deck has been stacked – mightily – against the latest live-action adaptation of the Eastman and Laird comic: from the drastic visual reinvention of the Turtles themselves to the involvement of the man behind one of 2014’s most baffling and broken cinematic experiences, it was hard to write off the pretty unkind word of mouth and fears that childhoods would be destroyed, etc.
And yet here we are, childhoods intact, with yet another interpretation of the Turtles (one of three currently versions between IDW’s comics and the popular Nickelodeon series), and I’m here to advise you see it. Or rather, don’t dismiss it out of hand: it’s a movie for 9-year-olds with the kind of busy fights and complicated logic of a 9-year-old’s fantasies and to that ends, its a functional, largely enjoyable, and mostly disposable piece of summer fun.
The story features the kind of Baysian needless complication that now links the Turtles’ origins to April O’Neil’s (Megan Fox) childhood, putting the Shredder in a corner as the villain behind the villain (William Fichtner’s slick and therefore clearly evil businessman), who plans to do… something rather drastic involving a citywide pandemic and a mutagenic cure involving the Turtles’ blood.
There’s no thought more toxic than “turn your brain off and enjoy it” and if Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ’14 was simply a brainless cash-in, I’m not sure I’d even expend the energy to review it. But as an action movie, it’s surprisingly… thoughtful? At least, in terms of the use of its character’s bodies and environments. Not settling for simply “coherent,” director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) and the film’s army of CG artists find inventive ways for the Turtles and Master Shredder to bounce around the screen and into each other, delivering raw hurt to the Foot Clan (painfully reimagined here as a gun-toting urban gang).
The Turtles are huge, cannonball-like things – a first for any of the live-action version. They’re fast-moving bruisers who use their shells to deflect bullets and cause blunt-trauma impact to the bad guys. Liebesman keeps the real and virtual cameras back far enough for the action to be free-flowing and easy to follow, while close enough to see precisely what the characters are doing and how.
The character shorthand for the CG creations that are Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) largely exist thanks to 30 years of established personality types across film, comics, and TV and there’s nothing that you could rightly call an “arc” for this movie. But I was almost kind of relived about that: I’m kind of done with watching heroes “begin” or answer the call – the turtles are ready to go and by the time we see them fully in action, zipping through the sewers on a rocket-powered skateboard and their shells – so are we.
If the broad elements of the Turtles’ relationship depend on a little built-in knowledge, the movie admirably is a stand-alone affair. It’s a movie that doesn’t require connective tissue for a sequel or another franchise to make the individual parts work, and I’m kind of pleased to have that in my action movie which is a weird, low bar to have to transcend nowadays.
The human cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Fichtner’s character is given just enough personality in one or two scenes to telegraph him as the bad guy, although his motivations and end game make very little sense (given that he’d be arrested almost immediately given how it plays out), and yet the actor – ever the professional – seems to be embracing the loose, easy villainy of his character. Meanwhile the guy in shadows and wearing the CG Shredder costumer is curiously shortsighted in his ambitions. Will Arnett carries the lion’s share of the movie’s jokes for the adults in the audience, as April O’Neil’s (Megan Fox) camera operator.
As for Ms. Fox – I’m trying to find a diplomatic, not-gross way of saying this, but there isn’t really one: her face is frozen in this movie and her performance suffers for it. An actress never really blessed with all that much range, she’s still shown in Jennifer’s Body that she can rise to the occasion if the material is there to meet her. But whatever the scene, her face is frozen in the same, lifeless reaction, only her lips registering any of the real or CG action in front of her. It’s dispiriting, and Ms. Fox struggles in a part that could have added some extra life to the film.
Your kids will love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – even if you won’t. That speaks less to the quality of the film (which is alright) and more to the strength of the property, which is kind of seared into our popular consciousness now. A surprising depth to the action, though, elevates what could have otherwise been stale material. Here’s hoping in the next go-round, we get a stronger script.