I have no nostalgia for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don’t think it’s a terrible concept, I just didn’t watch it as a kid. By the time I was old enough to watch TV more mature than Sesame Street, Power Rangers had rather firmly killed, stuffed, and mounted the turtles on its way to being one of the biggest media franchises of all time. I say that to provide context: reviews of reworkings of nostalgic properties tend to get accused of bias, and I have none. How can I? I never watched the stuff. So it was that I went into the latest iteration of this particular property completely cold.
The plot is primarily concerned with April O’Neil (Megan Fox). Like its closest cousins the Michael Bay directed Transformers movies (Bay produced this one) treats its title characters as background or sidekicks to the human characters, but whatever. Anyway, April is a reporter working in a version of New York City that is supposedly being tormented in a vaguely defined way by a paramilitary group called the Foot Clan. But April discovers that there’s a group of vigilantes out to defend the people: four 6 and a half foot tall turtles, who have been trained to be ninja by a rat named Splinter.
Oh and the turtles and rat were April’s pets when she was a kid that she rescued from a lab fire and they’re actually created by the Foot Clan’s leader, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) who is planning on using them to help his adopted dad Shredder conquer the world. They will do this via a needlessly overcomplicated plan where they’ll kill most of NYC but then sell everyone the cure, but the cure is in the Turtles’ blood so they need the Turtles and…did anyone get tired reading that, because I got tired writing it.
There’s a lot of ground to cover on this one, but I want to open somewhat oddly by complaining about the CGI and action. It’s bad enough that character and story often get thrown under the bus, but the usual trade off for good action and special effects is completely gone here. The CGI would have been subpar 8 years ago, not helped by the awful design on all of the turtles (although none of them are as impressively awful looking as Splinter). What’s more, the motion capture is incredibly stiff and seems to have been done at a completely different time as the facial capture, possibly in entirely different rooms, in different states.
The action might have almost been a saving grace, but it’s not. Every single CGI action scene uses a 360 degree pan (no seriously, ever single one) which makes the geography incredibly hard to keep track of. Outside of that, it’s all shaky-cam bulls**t, and none of it’s particularly inventive. The decision to make all four of the turtles into towering brutes only draws attention to how improbably it is that they’re flipping around doing ninja stuff, and combined with the incredibly inconsistent physics makes everything hard to take seriously. The only action scene that’s semi-tolerable is a mid movie fight between Splinter and Shredder. And that’s not for any of the fight’s merits, but because if I took off my glasses and squinted, I could pretend it’s a Skaven Assassin fighting a Chaos Lord.
But now we get to the movies more fundamental problems, like its script and characters. Put simply, the story doesn’t make any sense. It borrows heavily from the Amazing Spider-Man movies: overcomplicated coincidental backstory, destiny metaphors, magic blood macguffin…ending fight on a cell tower to stop the villain from releasing poison gas, okay now it’s getting creepy. When you’re borrowing from a movie that was already bad, you know you’re in trouble. Even outside of that, there are large chunks of the movie that just plain nonsensical.
For example, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for anyone in this movie to be a ninja. Sachs isn’t, the Shredder wears a suit of powered armor, and the only reason the Turtles and Splinter are ninja is because Splinter found a book on ninjitsu and decided it would be a good parenting manual. No, really that’s it. And then there are the moments where it’s own internal logic breaks down. To wit, towards the end Sachs pulls a “I killed your father” reveal on April, but we’d already SEEN April’s father die in a lab fire he himself started. A better movie might be able to get around things like that, but the script is easily the worst I’ve seen all year: terrible dialogue, awful pacing, and not a single thing resembling a character arc.
Speaking of, I was all geared up to complain that the Turtles maybe have one character trait a piece: Donatello is a mincing nerd stereotype so terrible Urkel would call foul, Raphael is growling wannabe badass, Michelangelo is a horny frat bro (and we’ll get into how hilariously uncomfortable that gets in a moment) but then I realized, I was being too generous, as Leonardo doesn’t appear to have a character beyond “The Leader” which is not a replacement for a character. All of this is compounded by some truly terrible acting: Megan Fox is phoning it in worse than in Transformers, the voice acting is uniformly awful, and Fichtner was better in The Lone Ranger.
Oh and the gender stuff, we haven’t gotten to that. It’s bad enough that Will Arnett (who hangs around the movie a lot but doesn’t seem to do anything other than drive and maybe club someone with a microscope once) spends his entire time hitting on Megan Fox, who he has a solid 15 years on and probably more on her character. But then when Michelangelo first meets April, he immediately decides she’s his girlfriend. The fact that a giant turtle is openly propositioning a human girl for sex is creepy enough as is, but the fact that he towers over her and spends half of his scenes pushing her around while she whimpers makes it ridiculously uncomfortable.
This movie is, without a doubt, the most distressing movie watching experiences I’ve had thus far this year. It’s not the worst movie I’ve seen, technically. That would still be A Winter’s Tale, but at least that had the interest of being basically incoherent or possibly assembled by a madman. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is bad due to much more boring and straightforward reasons: incompetence and laziness. There are other things I could talk about, like the awful product placement or how weird the pacing is, but really, there is no more damning criticism of a movie than to say it sucked because no one on the production cared enough to do a good job.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he can imagine Will Arnett at the premier saying to himself “…I’ve made a huge mistake.”
– Tony Shaloub is in it?
– terrible CGI and action
– insultingly bad script
– really awkward gender politics
– incredibly obvious product placement