Long before it was considered clever to ironically combine wildly unrelated concepts (evil kittens! Robot unicorns!), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were earnestly slicing foes and pizza while spouting the hippest slang available in the 1980s. Turtles are slow, vaguely inept, and extremely cute, but to call them “cool” would be a stretch; the same goes for the Renaissance painters the crime-fighting reptiles are named for. But no preteen youth can deny the awesomeness of ninjas, kung-fu, throwing stars, nunchakus, and sewer dojos, allowing the Ninja Turtles to handily pass muster and endure, fondly and nostalgically, in the memories of the now-adults who once collected the action figures and tuned in to the original cartoon. Though the franchise has spawned four other films, most recently the CGI animated TMNT released in 2007, someone decided it was time for a reboot, and here we are. Though it may win over some young new fans, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fails to recapture the sweet, silly sense of fun that their parents would have liked to see in a reboot. At best, it reminds us all just how old we are. Turtles are known for aging well; humans, on the other hand, sometimes have to be told when it’s time to let go of childish things lest we ruin them.
From Nickelodeon and Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes comes a summer blockbuster that should be a lot more fun than it actually is. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is such a goofy, unwieldy, and strange concept that it is almost a parody of itself, but what today’s young adults remember fondly about the franchise is not the super-logical characters or the excellent writing. Those things are allowed to slide, if they must. However, to omit certain aspects of the Turtles’ spirit in any adaptation is unforgivable. The story is playful, silly, and above all, sincere, and that’s what makes those who traded away their action figures decades ago so unguarded when they still call themselves fans. There is no shame in retaining love for a series that helped mold a person into the adult they are today… until, of course, a studio pushes out a forced, dull, and lumpen movie that teaches one the very meaning of shame. The opening credits are promising, animated in a stylish throwback to the comics the mutant turtles originate from. Their training under the mutated rat Splinter is outlined and set up, and suspension of disbelief is scarcely an issue. When the film moves toward a live-action medium to tell its story, though, things start to seriously fall apart. The first mistake is to focus on April O’Neil (Megan Fox), the comely reporter who feels entitled to being taken seriously when she occasionally alternates between sounding like an idiot and a crazy person. Usually, she sounds like someone who is just a crazy idiot. Most of her lines consist of babbling incoherently, along with statements like “huh,” “what”, and “that’s crazy!” April is just a little bit slow on the uptake, which is demonstrated most stunningly when she encounters the turtles… and then remembers, after going through some old home videos, that they were actually her pets before her father’s laboratory burned down. She even rescued them from the disaster, breathlessly releasing them into the sewer because that’s exactly what you do with your pets, I guess. I feel it shouldn’t be necessary to point out that memories of drastically life-defining moments don’t work like that, but maybe it would have helped the writers if someone had. Her other main purpose in the movie is to be ogled and objectified by humans and turtles alike; from the second Michaelangelo declares upon meeting her that she’s “so hot my shell’s getting tight,” it’s clear that the movie’s standards aren’t even in the gutter, they’re in the sewer… which is, perhaps, appropriate.
Will Arnett somehow manages to be boring as April’s unmemorable sidekick Vernon Fenwick, and William Fichtner, aka the actor with a very evil bone structure, is predictably cast as the movie’s slimy, wealthy big pharmaceutical villain, Eric Sacks. The other villain is the iconic Shredder, a samurai dressed as a robot who insists on speaking Japanese to everyone despite the fact that not a single character (even those who must be fluent in the language) speaks it back to him. It’s immensely frustrating to watch half of a mutually intelligible conversation in English and the other half in subtitles. Speaking of Asian culture and practices, there is another highly problematic element regarding Splinter’s mastery of Ninjutsu; rather than being the pet of a Japanese martial arts master as he was in the original story, Splinter apparently learned everything about his current identity from a Ninjutsu book someone flushed down the toilet. It must have been a hell of a book, but as anyone who’s ever studied an art or discipline to even near-mastery can attest to, this is not how gurus are made. It cheapens both the process of excellence and the backstory of Splinter and his “sons.”
The titular turtles are actually the most enjoyable aspect of the movie; there’s a smart, inventive one (Donatello), a goofball (Michaelangelo), a stoic badass (Raphael), and the honorable leader by default (Leonardo). They have a cute back and forth and it’s surprisingly easy to get used to the initially jarring way they’re rendered in CGI. Unlike their master Splinter, who looks stupid and is taken very seriously for a giant rat with a fu manchu moustache and a fake accent, the turtles are relatively endearing and salvage the only functional jokes in the movie (April’s sad attempts should have been left on the cutting room floor). Unfortunately, the Turtles are hulking and scary when they are not in motion or speaking, coming across as thuggish rather than youthful and fun (Raphael’s design is especially intimidating). Furthermore, they are not on screen nearly enough; for whatever reason, Megan Fox is the defacto star of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and while she’s undeniably beautiful, she doesn’t have the chops to be a leading lady. Will Arnett’s character ironically dismisses April early on as being nothing more than “fluff” or “candy,” and he’s depressingly accurate in his assessment. The Turtles’ major loss is that we don’t get any time to know them between action sequences. And since this is from Michael Bay’s studio, you know that those will take precedent going in.
The turtles are cartoonish in a good way when they relax a bit and are not hulking, scary, roided-out monsters. The most fun fifteen seconds of the movie occur when they are all stuck in an elevator, weapons out, ready to rush into battle the moment the doors open. They’re teenagers, and they’re restless, and with the rhythmic dinging of the elevator’s floor counter the only sound breaking the tense silence, it’s only a matter of time before they are all beatboxing together. I wish that the rest of the movie had been formed in this spirit, because it was genuinely funny and enjoyable. The plot, conversely, is cartoonish in the worst way. Instead of fighting crime, the Turtles are up against a generic supervillain with a generically convoluted supervillain scheme, and it’s predictable and tiresome. The film feels much longer than its running time of an hour and forty minutes, and is paced very poorly. Will Arnett and Megan Fox have less chemistry than Megan Fox and a CGI turtle, and are painful to watch together. While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should entertain children adequately (at least the ones that Raphael doesn’t terrify), it’s difficult to sit through as an adult, especially an adult who remembers a very different set of Ninja Turtles. The bottom line is pretty simple: when a franchise is anything but gritty, it’s probably not the best idea to try to toughen it up and present it to audiences expecting them to fall in love for the same reasons. At the end of the day, the characters are teenagers, and they’re mutants, and they’re ninjas, and they’re turtles, and it’s all very silly and a lot of fun. The problem with this reboot is that it knows it’s a silly idea; it’s self-conscious about the fact and gives the impression of going through the motions, ticking off boxes to include all the characters and catch-phrases without really caring about how they’re realized. It makes fun of the Ninja Turtles more than it has fun with them, insulting the subject matter and the audience alike. Nominate a DAFT (Designated Adult For Turtles) and make them take the kids. Meanwhile, get the 1990 movie cued up and ready to go for when they return so you can introduce them to the real Ninja Turtles.