I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was a kid. When I was six years old, I watched the animated TV series every day, and had to own every action figure and play set, including the Technodrome. I had a favorite turtle (Raph), but I liked them all because they had distinct personalities, a sense of humor, a well-defined world, and in retrospect, the gleeful insanity we’ve come to expect from kids’ TV shows of the era. Shredder’s boss, Krang, was an alien from another dimension who looked like talking brain inside of a robot’s tummy. Kids went with it.
By comparison, Jonathan Liebesman‘s new live-action adaptation is nothing but apologies and excuses. Loaded down with worthless exposition, coincidences, clichés, ham-fisted product placement, and lame jokes, the movie rarely uses its heroes for anything more than set pieces. The 90s TV series and the new movie are both targeted at kids, but at least the Ninja Turtles of my childhood wasn’t ashamed of its existence. [Note: If you’re someone who freaks out because of spoilers, don’t read this review because I don’t want you whining in the comments section]
The Foot Clan, a paramilitary organization bent on wreaking havoc, are running rampant in New York City. Channel 6 News Reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is looking to catch her first big break, and she thinks she’s found it when she discovers that a group of vigilantes are attempting to stop the Foot. Upon further investigation, she discovers that the vigilantes are four six-foot, extremely muscular, talking teenage turtles who are named after Renaissance painters. But because this is an awful, hackneyed screenplay working from the idiotic belief that every character must be related through a convoluted past, it turns out that April is connected not only to the Turtles’ origin, but also to the villain Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a scientist who used to work alongside her father. And in case you were nostalgic for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, the Turtles’ blood is special and the villain wants it.
When April meets (or rather, meets again; she initially doesn’t know that these were the turtles her father and Sacks were using for experiments), she stammers that they’re mutant teenage turtles who are also ninjas. “Well,” says Donatello (Jeremy Howard), “when you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous.” Turtles is constantly apologizing for its outlandish premise rather than just accepting and embracing the lunacy of its very title. The series began as a comic book intended to parody gritty comics at the time. That comic was then turned into a TV series that lost the parody and replaced it with silliness. Liebesman’s take tries to bridge the gap between reality and imagination, and instead plummets to its death.
The film is packed with needless explanations. Why are they called the “Foot Clan”? Because these terrorists have New York City underfoot (don’t care; didn’t ask). Why does Shredder’s outfit look like someone vomited out tons of blades onto a samurai outfit? Because Sacks has equipped Shredder’s samurai armor with the latest in military technology (don’t care; didn’t ask). Why are the Turtles named after Renaissance painters? Because the experimental program was called “Project Renaissance” (don’t care; didn’t ask). Why do the Turtles like pizza? Because April fed them pizza when they were little (really don’t care; why would anyone ask).
I do care that the Turtles are background players in their own movie. While I understand that April is the audience surrogate and her cameraman Vern (Will Arnett) is meant to function as comic relief (and yet he doesn’t provide any laughs), people don’t show up to a Turtles movie for the humans. They want the heroes to bounce off each other and have some fun. But they mostly exist as fodder for action scenes and do the bare minimum required to display their characters’ personalities: Leonardo (mo-capped by Pete Ploszek; voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is responsible; Donatello is smart; Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) is a goofball; and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is a rebel minus the wise-cracks of his previous iteration. The movie does well at selling them as brothers, but with the exception of Michelangelo, it fails at establishing them as individuals.
If only Liebesman had put as much care put into the characters as the obnoxious product placement (the movie basically stops to have a Pizza Hut commercial), the constant exposition, and the set pieces. Admittedly, an action scene that has the Turtles sliding down a mountainside is kind of cool, but it’s where the movie basically becomes an animated film. And if you take away the digital Turtles’ grotesque appearances (this is what happens when there’s more focus on being “real” than being endearing), the scene could have been a nice evolution of the action featured in 2007’s animated (and easily superior) TMNT. The action provides a brief respite from a constant slog where the Turtles are caught in a worthless mythology that makes them pawns in a much larger game.
I recently watched an episode of the 90s animated series, and as an adult I know it’s not amazing. But it’s also not apologetic or self-conscious. When Donatello single-handedly builds an inter-dimensional portal and lugs it up from the sewers to the surface, there’s no beleaguered explanation of how inter-dimensional portals work and where he found an elevator.