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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

August 8, 2014
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The great tragedy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it didn’t have to be this bad. I don’t mean to defend any particular iteration of these characters as the One True Turtles; they’ve been reinvented so many times since Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original comic, and that’s fine. But when Michael Bay’s production team got their hands on the property they set about making the laziest, most obnoxious choice at each opportunity.

Yes, the whole concept is ridiculous from the title onwards, but we just came off of a weekend where a talking raccoon and a walking tree led Guardians of the Galaxy to a record-shattering debut, and without explicitly reducing the female lead to a sex object at every turn. The Turtles are practically normal next to that; in fact, Eastman and Laird’s comic grew out of the same era that gave us Howard the Duck and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. And even with such well-known characters to work with, writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty and director Jonathan Liebesman can come up with nothing interesting to do with them, even recycling a tired, old “poison the city” storyline from all the least imaginative superhero movies.

True to Michael-Bay-Transformers style, the turtles themselves are actually secondary characters. The real lead is aspiring reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox). Despite being somehow the one reporter to see the rise of the Foot Clan as a New York City gang superpower as a big news story, she’s relegated to fluff pieces with her cameraman/producer Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). But she’s also the daughter of the researcher who created the turtles in the first place, the former partner of billionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who’s secretly partnered with Shredder (Masamune Tohoro), who heads up the Foot Clan. Because of course every single plot thread is connected to every other.

As for the turtles themselves, they look just awful. Yeah, mutated reptiles aren’t likely to win any beauty contests, but the bizarrely crooked humanoid teeth inside the green Mick Jagger lips — both obviously CGI-rendered — are just disturbing. And Splinter (motion-captured by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shaloub) is even worse. These are the stuff of nightmares.

Which is a particular problem given the standard excuse being wheeled out for the terrible quality: “it’s for the kids”. Setting aside the way this insults “the kids'” tastes, I don’t buy it. TMNT gets the same PG-13 that Guardians did. One of the first lines we get from Michaelangelo is about his shell “getting tighter” when he sees April. A major action beat is set up by Will Arnett getting distracted by Megan Fox bending way over. This is not aimed at kids; maybe at particularly puerile pre-teens.

And if the movie is still somehow intended for children, I don’t know how you can explain the broad stereotypes of the turtles themselves. Leonardo barely has a character, so I don’t know why you’d need to bring in Johnny Knoxville as a separate voice actor; Raphael has patterned himself after Christian Bale’s Batman; Michaelangelo is all but a pick-up-artist; and I’m most disappointed in Donatello.

Yes, Don has always been the engineer and the nerd of the group, but he’s never been the dweeb like this, down to the stammering, the nasal inflection, and the taped-together glasses. In tortoiseshell, no less, which kind of feels like a cow wearing a leather jacket, or (for you fellow TMNT fans) Miyamoto Usagi wearing a rabbit-fur stole. Raph and Mike try to make being a brute and a creep look cool; Don is here to make being smart look bad. And this is what you say is “for the kids”?

The visuals and action aren’t even salvageable. It’s a giant, chaotic mess, especially the one major set-piece. Think of a bad imitation of Bayhem without even Bay’s own aesthetic sensibilities. How can a tractor-trailer careening down a snowy mountain be so damn boring? For that matter, are there any mountains on the outskirts of the NYC sewer system that would be snowy in late March? Liebesman bends reality just in order to set up a visually awesome sequence, and then completely fails to deliver any real excitement.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a loud, bloated, stupid mess. We had the chance to stop Bay’s Transformers after the first one, but we failed. I dearly hope we can stop the mutant turtles before they metastasize.

Worth It: no. Go watch Guardians of the Galaxy again.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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