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Shellshocked: A Review of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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*** ½ out of 5 Stars

The poster for the film.
The poster for the film.
Image courtesy of www.Screenrant.com.

The Heroes in a Half-Shell are back, thanks to producer Michael Bay. But has he botched them, as many have said he did to Transformers?

An intrepid lady reporter stumbles upon four crime-fighting humanoid turtles and quickly finds herself drawn into a battle between them and a crime syndicate controlled by an evil samurai.

The new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has had to earn more credibility from fans than any “geek film” released this in the past several years. It was an uphill battle from the beginning. First, it was being produced by Platinum Dunes, which only had several bad horror film remakes under its belt. Second, there was Bay’s infamous statement that made it sound like the Turtles would be extraterrestrials, which threw fans into an uproar. Then the radical redesigns for the characters annoyed them (“How dare they give the Turtles nostrils!”) William Fichtner was announced as playing the traditionally Japanese villain Shredder, but that proved to be a misunderstanding. Some even bemoaned the casting of Megan Fox as the foursome’s reporter friend, April O’Neil. Fox’s 15 minutes of fame were over three hours ago, and she’s always seemed prettier than she was talented. Even reassurances from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the creators of the Turtles, couldn’t quell the nerd rage. It took two trailers and a fairly aggressive promotion campaign to make fans willing to give the film a chance.

And it left fans shellshocked.

(SPOILER WARNING!)

The core of the film is the Turtles themselves. If they weren’t done right, the rest of the movie was sunk. Their personalities and roles are intact. In fact, the filmmakers wisely made them more distinctive visually. Raphael, the hotheaded rebel, is built like a truck. Donatello the geek has a lot of technology on his back (and unnecessary dopey-looking glasses, unfortunately). Leonardo wears shoulder pads. Michelangelo the “party dude” comes the closest to the classic design. Their interactions are like those of four teenage boys: competitive yet respectful; intense but loving. Mikey even has a crush on April, showing more of the “raging hormones” side of teenage life than the Turtles ever have in any of their on-screen incarnations. However, there are points where the characterization falters and becomes a little cliché—such as when Don has a Steve Urkel snort when he laughs—but it’s mostly solid. The special effects often make them seem to be nine or ten feet tall though they’re supposed to be six feet tall. This is probably because are animated as heavy due to their thick shells and muscled bodies.

As for the other characters, most work well. Megan Fox gives a surprisingly good performance as April and even sports the character’s famous yellow jacket from the original cartoon series. Whether this was due to better direction or acting lessons is unknown, but she’s more compelling here than she was in the “Transformers” films. Will Arnett is fun as her sidekick Vernon, the weaselly cameraman. Fichtner plays Eric Sacks, a scientist/industrialist who serves as this film’s Baxter Stockman. Shredder is Japanese, though the actor is only seen without his armor a few times. The Iron Man-esque design of the armor demands that he be called “Shredimus Prime,” though, especially with its preposterous but cool ability to shoot daggers and magnetically retrieve them. Splinter takes the most time to get used to. His appearance is equal parts Hong Kong martial arts movie master and samurai.

While the Turtles aren’t aliens, details of their origin have been changed. It’s April, not Shredder, who plays a key role in their “births.” Her father was a geneticist who injected them with mutagen in an attempt to create a wonder drug. April cared for them as a child and saved them from a lab fire. Now, the fire was started by the Foot Clan, but that’s as much involvement as Shredder has. Also, to many fans’ chagrins, Hamato Yoshi, the ninja master who had Splinter as a pet pre-mutation, has been omitted. Splinter is a self-taught martial artist. This is both more believable and more preposterous. Splinter’s best origin remains the one from the ‘80s cartoon series, where he was Hamato Yoshi mutated into a rat.

(What's amusing is there seems to be borderline meta-jokes that hint at the controversial extraterrestrial origin).

The film suffers from blatant product placement on par with “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The most obvious—unsurprisingly—is Pizza Hut. Boxes of food from the company are seen several times throughout the film, including a scene where Splinter tempts the Turtles to cease training with a box of pizza. With a little editing, it could be passed off as a Pizza Hut commercial.

Regardless, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a better than it deserves to be. After enduring months of browbeating, the film has proven itself. It’s not perfect, but it would make even Master Splinter proud.