I rarely go into a movie with personal baggage, even if it involves actors, filmmakers, or franchises I’m attached to. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those rare exceptions, as its source material was a major part of my childhood, and the more I heard about the people involved and saw what the film would look like, the more I dreaded seeing it. The slew of negative reviews it received upon release didn’t help, either.
After finally seeing the film, I found myself with an opinion that I was predicting had little chance of happening. Though I’m in no way going to defend it as a great or truly good blockbuster, especially considering that there have been several much stronger films in the weeks before it, I do feel that overall, despite numerous flaws, it’s harmless, inoffensive, and mostly passable as far as mindless action films go, and is definitely more tolerable to watch than many of the recent films its director and producer have made.
Taking place in modern-day New York City, the film starts out following the fledgling reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who yearns to cover more than the frequent fluff pieces she’s assigned to, and starts investigating the recent crime wave caused by an underground organization known as the Foot Clan. When her clues lead her to members of the group unloading some supplies, she witnesses a shadowy vigilante making a stand against them, and attempts to discover his identity, despite everyone brushing her stories off.
Her pursuit of the truth eventually leads her to discover that there are actually four vigilantes, and that they’re also six-foot-tall talking reptiles with names taken from renaissance-era artists. The group includes the stern leader Leonardo (Voiced by Johnny Knoxville), the hotheaded Raphael (Alan Ritchson), the intelligent Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and the goofball jokester Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), along with their father figure, a rat named Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), who were all mutated years ago due to being experimented on. Things start to get more complicated for the group when both renowned scientist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) and the ruthless Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) enter the picture, both of which tie both into the turtles’ origins and the main conflict of the movie.
Before tackling this movie’s pros and cons as a standalone product, I’ll just get its shortcomings compared to earlier efforts, as this is actually the fifth big-screen treatment the franchise has received, with three live-action films in the early 1990s and a CG-animated loose sequel in 2007. One of the more notable ones is something I decided on when images and trailers started to be released, and that is the simple fact that the redesigns for the turtles are simply not appealing. Splinter fares even worse, looking more like a hairy pig than anything; I suspect that may be why he was barely featured in any promotional media. Compared to every effort before it, the turtles are now far bigger and buff, but the bigger problem is that their faces come off as more of an effort to look realistic than an effort to be easy on the eyes.
On a more positive note, the redesigns do something the previous movies never did, which is to give each turtle both a different facial design and even some unique clothing and accessories (Most media before repeated the same design four times with only different-colored bandanas to set them apart). Also, the movie does a good job of keeping their personalities generally the same as before, and gives some of them more to do than in the original films. The only real downside is that Michelangelo’s constant jokes rarely come off as genuinely funny or clever, as well as the fact that he provides a pointless fart joke early on.
Megan Fox also has little in common physically with previous versions of April, and while I didn’t find her acting bad like many others have said, I still think there are plenty of other actresses out there who would fit the role better. On the plus side, Will Arnett, who plays her cameraman Vernon, provides some of the film’s better lines, though once again, there are more of them that fell flat than I was hoping for.
Finally, the movie changes the origins of both Splinter and the turtles quite a bit, and not in a good way. Previous versions established a link between Splinter and Shredder to give a little more background and motivation, a young April ends up involved for no good reason, and their decision to practice martial arts in the first place seems a lot more forced when we see what kicked it off. Another downside is that not only does Shredder have no previous connection to anyone, but he has next to nothing in terms of an interesting background, motivation, or personality. It doesn’t help that the suit he wears looks like an over-the-top imitation of the villains from the Transformers movies.
The actual plot of the movie is pretty basic, and while the pacing is generally good, some might be annoyed that you don’t actually see the title characters until 20 minutes in. I also thought about 10 minutes midway into the film dragged, as the majority of the cast decided at that point to give their life stories one after another instead of spreading it throughout the film better. On the plus side, the second half makes up for it by mostly consisting of action sequences, and they’re actually generally fun to watch. I’ve heard complaints from longtime fans that they wish the turtles were still animatronic costumes instead of motion-capped CGI, but the upside to this decision is the fact that there are some scenes that would be very difficult to pull off with physical suits, most notably a fun part where they are simultaneously sliding down a snowy mountain while fighting off thugs. The only general downside to these scenes is a heavy reliance on slow-mo shots that I haven’t seen the likes of since 300, but the normally paced moments are still fun to watch.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that a big reason I was dreading this film besides the redesigns was the names involved. Michael Bay, who has directed the aforementioned and straight-up awful Transformers series, is the main producer, and the director is Jonathan Liebesman, whose past work includes the dull Wrath of the Titans and the horrid Battle: Los Angeles, which has the unfortunate honor of being the worst film I reviewed the year I first started writing here.
With all of these elements combined, as well as the general critical thrashing the film received, I walked in expecting a painful trainwreck. What I got was a generally average film with a few engaging action scenes sprinkled throughout. While that’s certainly not high praise, it’s still better than what I expected.
I’m not going to pretend that the earlier films were masterpieces; I’d argue that the only ones adults would generally enjoy are the 1990 original and the 2007 cartoon, as the second and third films relied more heavily on goofy slapstick and jokes than interesting stories. As a whole, though, this franchise has seen better days in theaters, but at the same time, there was nothing about this reboot that made me leave the theater feeling insulted or angry at all. I’d actually argue that kids who are familiar with the modern TV incarnations of the franchise will probably have a good time with it, and parents will at least not feel like they’re being tortured while watching it.
Obviously, my general opinion is far from enthusiastic, especially since I ended up giving it the same rating as Liebesman’s last two films for many reasons mentioned earlier, but I’d still say it’s the most enjoyable of his last three films, and while I dread the already-confirmed sequel possibly reaching the lows of the abysmal second Transformers film, for now, I can say that this film will provide some enjoyment for its intended audience, but it definitely won’t leave any sort of lasting impression, either.