Saturday, August 9, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

It might be somewhat redundant to say that I've always been a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I'm pretty sure that every self-respecting male who was born in the '80s at least knew the four turtles and probably loved them. As for me, I practically memorized the movies, owned toys of each character in many variations, played several versions of the video games depending on which system I was using, and regularly pretended to be my favorite turtle (either Donny or Mikey) while playing with my older brother (either Leo or Raph) and sister (a somewhat disgruntled April O'Neal). With all that being said, I wasn't immediately won over by the idea of a slick Hollywood reboot of one of my favorite childhood franchises. To me, the definitive version of the turtles is probably the beloved cartoon series that ran during the late '80s and early '90s, though I have very formative memories of the live action movies as well. However, despite a lack-luster teaser trailer, I tried to keep an open mind when viewing this film. I had a feeling it wasn't going to be great, but I did at least hope for some nostalgic joy out of the experience if nothing else.

April O'Neal is a put-upon journalist, relegated to reporting fluff pieces despite her dreams of finally breaking a big, important story. With a recent upswing in crime (led by the mysterious Foot clan), April snoops around the docks as the clandestine group attempts to steal materials from a shipping container. Rather than reporting on the robbery, however, April witnesses a vigilante completely overpower the dangerous gang single-handedly, leaving an ancient Japanese symbol scrawled on the side of one of the containers. Without much hard evidence to back up her fantastical story, she decides to sneak up on the Foot clan as they take hostages in the subway, hoping to see the vigilantes in action long enough to snap a photo. However, they arrive and disappear in a flash, and it's only after she follows them to the roof that she finally lays eyes on the heroes - who turn out to be four mutated turtles with highly developed martial arts skills. With her career hanging in the balance, April tries to decide whether to report her findings and endanger the anthropomorphized reptiles, or to fight along side them against a dark and mysterious figure known as the Shredder.

The intro to this movie was more or less what I expected, with April's first appearance coming well before the titular heroes in a half-shell. One of the big concerns I had about this film going in was Megan Fox's portrayal of the turtle-friendly reporter. Having seen her (which is about as close to a compliment I can give her) in the Transformers films, I had a feeling she wasn't exactly the best decision for the role. Indeed, there are several times throughout the movie that I literally cringed at her line-readings and facial expressions. However, she mostly satisfies her quotient here as the most she's really asked to do is stand around and look pretty. I don't know why we spend so much time on her character - particularly since it doesn't pay off in any way - but I suppose it could have been worse. At least the script didn't require her to do any real acting.

I know there have been a lot of complaints surrounded the new designs of the turtles. I can't tell you how many angry comments or articles I've read about the decision the animators made when it came to their updated look. For me, I honestly didn't have that big of a problem with it. It takes a few minutes to acclimate to their new appearance, but I kind of liked the updated gear they wore and the more "realistic" features of the turtles. The worst part was definitely their nostrils, but I was able to get over that fairly quickly. If the design doesn't mimic the previous incarnations too much, don't let that persuade you that the animators aren't turtle fans. There are a few direct call backs to the previous films, and one shot in particular was taken straight out of the cartoon's opening sequence. These little nods to the previous incarnations of the ninja turtles definitely took me back, and I appreciated the effort taken to honor what came before in some way.

What I didn't necessarily like about the turtles this time around was their personalities. Maybe it's just my familiarity with the previous versions of each of the characters, but I found their connection to pop culture to be a little forced and even pandering at times (especially with Mikey). I would have liked it better if the turtles were a little behind the times. To me it would make more sense for them to be scrounging old VHS tapes from the '80s in their sewer, thus creating a built-in comedic element as well as giving us characters that were a little more consistent with what we've seen before. Having just seen Guardians of the Galaxy do this exact thing so effectively, I feel it was a missed opportunity for this movie not to bring in more of that '80s nostalgia.

With a reboot like this you're obviously going to get new origins for the characters, otherwise it would just be a remake of the 1990 film (which it pretty much is, if you think about it). The good news is that the new backstory for the turtles was actually kind of clever, and I think it might even make a little more sense than the original version. Before I compliment this screenplay too much, however, let me also add that it's pretty much a direct rip-off of The Amazing Spider-Man with plot points from the original TMNT film sprinkled in as filler. Shredder's plot is almost exactly the same as the Lizard's, the turtles' origin is almost exactly the same as Spider-Man's, and there's even a moment that the top of a building crashes down (which is in the trailer) that's exactly the same as what we saw in Spider-Man. It's incredibly lazy screenwriting, and I found myself wishing they could go back in time and write another draft of the script before principal photography began.

This movie is about 65% action and 35% thread-bare plot. The action can be pretty entertaining at times, if not a little overwhelming on the senses, but the story is so pedestrian it's seriously infuriating to sit through. A lot of that can probably be pinned on the fairly inexperienced director, but I have to think this is more of a script-based problem. There are so many characters that shouldn't have even been in this movie (Will Arnett and William Fichtner, I'm looking at you), and many others that don't get enough development for us to even care about them. I even wish we could have spent more time with the Shredder, as the shadowy style in which he was filmed made him seem kind of mysterious. The mere fact that we spend so much time with April at the beginning and don't even see any resolution to her story arc is perhaps the most incriminating evidence against this script.

Overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a pretty mediocre movie. There are parts I enjoyed (primarily the fight scenes with the turtles) and a whole lot that I was disappointed by that I won't discuss in order to avoid spoilers. Luckily this is a very short movie, clocking in at less than 2 hours and making it far easier to stomach as a result. Mostly, I'm irritated by the potential this film could have had. It wouldn't have taken much more effort to make this film work, but as it is there's nothing I can really endorse about it. Kids might find some enjoyment here, and I honestly don't think it's entirely bad. Still, all this film deserves is a generous two and a half stars.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014) is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

**What did you think of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Do you think it's a worthy update or did they miss the mark? Let me know in the comments below!**