Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Writers: Josh Appelbaum, Evan Daugherty, and André Nemec
Cast: Will Arnett, Abby Elliott, William Fichtner, Noel Fisher, Megan Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Howard, Johnny Knoxville, Masamune Tohoru, Minae Noji, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny Woodburn


© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

Long-time readers know that, despite my hosting a show called Don’t F with the Original, I generally don’t mind remakes and revivals putting their own spin on the source material. As such, I want to make clear that my dislike of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has little to do with it failing to capture the charm of the original (which it does), ignoring the themes to which I related as a kid (which it does), or mangling the property beyond recognition (which it does). What with the turtles having gone through a dozen different incarnations in the past three decades, I hardly expected this new film to be a faithful adaptation. I just needed it to work as a dramatic construct (which it doesn’t).

In fairness to director Jonathan Liebesman, most of his movie can be found on the cutting room floor, owing to Internet backlash. As a result, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes across like a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, half from the initial production and three fifths from the last-minute reshoots (no, it doesn’t add up). I’m reminded of the time Matthew Vaughn, the creative mind behind Kick-Ass (2010) and X-Men: First Class (2011), got pressured off X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) only to be replaced by Brett Ratner, the man responsible for, well, X-Men: The Last Stand. If it ain’t broke, don’t listen to the fanboys.

Consider the opening scene, in which Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) summarises our heroes’ kooky origin as if to catch us up on their thirty-year-old epic. Boasting gorgeous animation reminiscent of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s source comic book series, the sequence promises an accelerated thrill ride full of crime-fighting whoopass. Unfortunately, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles then doubles back to retell the same story from the perspective of April O’Neil (Megan Fox) a.k.a. the worst newswoman to grace the silver screen since Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed (1999).

Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, Evan Daugherty, and André Nemec (yes, it took three people to write Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) seem to think that journalists are measured by their ability to uncover stuff, but that’s only half the job: good reporters must also convey the information in a way that makes us care. April, in contrast, presents her scoop about genetically engineered vigilantes with such ineptitude that she darts straight past underdog territory into “How the hell did you get hired in the first place?”

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

Stretching credibility even further are the character’s innumerable connections to our heroes in a half shell. You see, in this version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, April isn’t just portrayed as the turtles’ friend and surface-world contact. She also serves as their one-time owner, mother, and even messiah (she’s literally the offspring of their maker). Other than an inescapable “ick” factor, I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what tainting the film’s central relationship with religious zealotry adds to the narrative, especially since neither of the villains have spiritual inklings.

Come to think of it, Shredder (Masamune Tohoru) has got a whole lot of nothing in common with our heroes, making for a rather bland, not to mention arbitrary, nemesis. At least, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) used to work with April’s father and participated in the turtles’ experimental mutation. Unfortunately, his role is dwindled to that of forgettable henchman halfway through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In other words, the one baddie with whom our protagonists have a relationship bows out before the climax, leaving the “real” villain to take over with no emotional stakes whatsoever. I wish I knew how to convey a slow clap in writing.

To make matters worse, at no point in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles do the heroes make a decision that affects the plot. Instead, unlikely circumstances bounce the four turtles from one set piece to the next, sucking out any remaining opportunity for drama. For all of his posturing about taking charge of the team, Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville) never actually leads his brothers anywhere. By the same token, Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) scores a few good zingers, but wouldn’t it have made for a nice change of pace if his childlike innocence somehow played into the story?

In fairness, the turtles’ individual personalities remain otherwise intact, albeit filtered through Michael Bay’s frat boy aesthetic. Raphael (Alan Ritchson) doesn’t just let his anger get the better of him in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; he throws roided up temper tantrums and bullies everyone he meets. Similarly, Donatello (Jeremy Howard) isn’t shown as just a gifted inventor; his physique denotes the scrawniest, most sniveling of nerds because, you know, intelligence is so undesirable.

I question Liebesman’s decision to give each of our heroes his own distinct look. Like the Smurfs, the ninja turtles were designed to appear the same, emphasising their fraternal bond and the transformative powers of one’s thoughts and actions. Like the recent Smurfs movies, though, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles forgoes the notion in order to flaunt Hollywood’s latest advances in computer-generated imagery. Gone are the absurdly cutesy amphibians of the comics and animated series, replaced with beefed-up, overly complex behemoths that will scare the bejesus out of your eight-year-old.

This leads us to my final point about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: who the hell is this movie for? On the one hand, we’ve got Shredder spouting off commands like, “Threaten innocent people!” as if to confirm that taking hostages is evil; on the other, Michelangelo joking that the sight of April makes his shell too tight. Better yet, consider the dichotomy inherent to the producers reinventing the turtles’ back story and then caving to the whims of a fan-base that knows the property by heart. They say you can’t please everybody. If you try, though, you might end up not pleasing anybody.

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