For anybody from Fresno that grew up in the 80s and 90s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a rite of passage. Sure, anybody who grew up into adulthood before then will see this as just a stupid idea that somehow took off and became a phenomenon, but those of us who were kids at the time just fell in love with these characters. And as it turns out, the Turtles' charm isn't limited to just the initial generation. Every since the Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first created the characters for the original Mirage comics books in 1984, the franchise has been constantly re-invented over and over again over the course of it's thirty year history.
Because of this, different generations of fans have different variations of the Turtles that they hold near and dear to their hearts and which serve as their ideal version. So, any time a new version comes out or they get a look at what had come before their time, they usually don't like it. Fans of the original 1987 cartoons series instantly hated the 2003 cartoon series because of how serious and action-centric it was, while those who grew up on the 2003 series aren't impressed with the original series for it's heavy emphasis on comedy over serious action. Incidentally, the current series airing on Nickelodeon seems to fall in-between the two versions, though clearly favoring the original series more.
My point is all this is that, as Captain Logan put it in the intro to his review of the original live-action film, is that Ninja Turtles is one of those franchise that if you grew up with it, especially if you were there when the original cartoon series was airing, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to separate critical opinion of it's different incarnations, past or present, from rose-tinted nostalgia.
So going into this new TMNT film, I knew I would have to go into it with an open mind, but as a fan myself I fully admit that my own personal opinions about the Turtles franchise and what I feel it should be will inevitable play a key factor in my judgement of this film. Is that necessarily fair? No. But even though these obviously weren't going to be the Turtles of my youth, neither the 80s cartoon version or the original movie version, maybe it would still be something worth seeing?
Well...yes and no.
The film takes place in modern day New York as it is under attack by a paramilitary criminal organization called the Foot Clan. One of the people following this outbreak of crime is April O'Neil (played by Megan Fox), a young and intrepid reporter for Channel 6 News who is full of energy and is striving for that big break that will kick start her career, but for the moment is stuck doing lame lifestyle stories about gimmicky aerobics techniques, along with her overly-smug photographer Vernon Fenwick (played by Will Arnett). April sees the Foot Clan's malicious deeds as her ticket to furthering her career, and while she spies on a robbery the Foot make at the docks, she sees the robbery foils by a mysterious vigilante. April tries to tell her editor (played by Whoopi Goldberg) about what she saw, but nobody at Channel 6 believes her.
After this April witnesses the Foot Clan terrorizing a subway, in an effort to lure out this vigilante. In the chaos April herself ends up in danger, but nevertheless gets a brief look at not one, but four vigilantes that defeat the Foot with relative ease, and then disappear just a quickly. April manages to spot them climbing atop the rooftop and takes a picture of them with her camera phone to prove herself to her co-workers, but what she discovers is unlike anything she could have imagined. The vigilantes are not human at all, but instead a quartet of gigantic, walking, talking turtles...who are also teenagers...and clearly mutated...and all of them have been trained as ninjas. The four turtles--Leonardo (played by Pete Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Michelangelo (played by Noel Fisher), Donatello (played by Jeremy Howard), and Raphael (played by Alan Ritchson)--tell April to keep what she has seen a secret, or else they will find her.
Her encounter with the Turtles jogs something in the back of April's memory and she realizes that these bizarre characters are in fact a key part of her own past, but not surprisingly, her editor still does not believe her story. So instead, she takes what she has seen to the one person she knows might believe her, Eric Sacks (played by William Fichtner), a wealthy scientist and industrialist claiming to be working to help New York City against the Foot Clan and also a former colleague of April's father. Sacks seems excited at the turtle's existence, seeing them as the proof of what he and his father had tried to do years ago. But this also raises concern from the Turtles' sensei, a mutated rat named Splinter (played by Danny Woodburn and voiced by Tony Shalhoub), who fears for April's safety from the vengeful wrath of the Foot Clan and their ruthless and mysterious leader, the Shredder (played by Tohoru Masamune), especially now that April has revealed the Turtles' existence to Sachs, who may have a connection to the Foot Clan's operations that the rest of the world in unaware of. With Shredder and the Foot on the hunt for them, it is up to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to finally come out of hiding and embrace their destiny as the heroes their city needs.
There are definitely a lot of major changes made to the traditional Turtles mythology here, and a lot of them are going to anger a lot of fans. For instance, the Foot Clan are changed from a legit clan of ninjas (or robots in the case of the old cartoon) into a paramilitary force that rely on guns and explosives...Okay, then what bother calling them the Foot Clan? Some popular characters are missing from this interpretation (though there is no telling what might happen in future sequels), the most surprising of which is the omission of the Turtles' longtime ally and April's love interest Casey Jones. The Shredder's armor is something that gets tweaked in every incarnation, but here he looks like a giant robot samurai crossed with a Swiss army knife.
But since I have mentioned Shredder's new look, lets address the issue that is going to bother people the most: the designs of the Turtles themselves. In this film it was decided to beef them up to roughly six feet tall, far larger than we have ever seen them in any previous incarnation. Like most fans, I am not a big fan of this decision, and the reason I'm not big on it is the same as was said by IGN, it leads the Turtles to take out their foes more with brute strength than with actual ninja skills. Yes, they do display some martial arts skills throughout, especially in their final battle with Shredder, but much of the time they really are just using their size and strength to their advantage. If only Raphael, the character known for his rough attitude and short temper, had done much of his fighting that way, maybe I could buy that; but no, all of the Turtles resort to this at different points in the film. Plus, it is already hard to imagine how well the Turtles can fight with those giant shells of theirs, so wouldn't their size just slow them down even more?
In addition to their size, these Turtles are also unique form other versions because of their faces and the extra layers of clothing they wear. I would be lying if I said that I didn't think seeing the Turtles with nostrils an noticeably more humanoid features was marginally distracting, but I suspect that this was a decision made to figure out how to, for the first time, make fully CGI Ninja Turtles fit in a live action environment. As for their extra clothes, I don't think it's necessary, but I suppose no major harm was done with it. I could see the ninja influence in giving Leonardo that bamboo chest piece and having Raphael wear his bandanna over his entire head topped with a pair of shades, when coupled with his larger muscles even among his brothers does emphasize his rougher, street-persona. On the other hand, Michelangelo does have a seashell necklace and sunglasses hanging from his neck, and while I can understand the logic in giving Donatello all the high-tech gear on his back (even if, again, it would likely slow him down), the tapped together glasses takes his nerdy machinist archetype a bit too far. Although, I do think giving Donatello a mechanical, retractable bo staff was a welcome twist that made sense for the character.
I should probably mention Splinter as well. In this new film, he looks much more like an real life rat that has grown to human size, the only downside being that he also looks much more disgusting when seen up close, especially when he gets seriously hurt later on in the film. The Korey and Martin Show described it best: imagine the rats from the movie Witches grown to giant size, and that is what Splinter looks like. Don;t get me wrong, I appreciate what they were going for with this visual and it is certainly not unwatchable, and heck, maybe it would be what a real-life Splinter would most likely look like, but ultimately I think a slightly more reserved design like, say, the one from the first two live-action movies might have been a little bit better.
But the real biggest issue that needs to be addressed is the dramatic changes made to the Turtles' and Splinter's origin story. Sadly this is also the portion of the review that I need to be the most vague about because this portion contain, I feel, the most interesting spoilers of the film. What I can say is that much of the classic ninja flair from the original origin, namely Splinter being raised as the pet rat of martial artist Hamato Yoshi and the way that also ties into Shredder's origins is apparently missing from this version, replaced instead by a far more simple and, in my humble opinion, less interesting version of were Splinter and the Turtles came from and how they got exposed to the mutagen that transformed them. Even the explanation of the character's ninja skills is altered; while in the original Splinter learned all he knew from mimicking his Master Yoshi's movements from within his cage and later passing that knowledge down to his sons, here Splinter instead discovers a how-to book on ninjutsu fighting in the sewers, teaches himself first, then the Turtles.
The main problem with the revised origin story (and don't worry, I swear that those infamous alien rumors are all false), is that all of the major characters are tied together in this version in a way that seems way to convenient. I can't explain exactly how, but April, her father, Eric Sacks, Shredder, Splinter and the Turtles go back much farther than we realize, meaning that when the characters all cross paths again now is becomes this almost absurd coincidence that feels unnecessary. I admit that on first viewing of this film, as a fan of the Turtles through so many variations, it was a surprisingly emotional twist to see these characters I have grown up and who always have come off as an almost surrogate family in the past suddenly become tied together in this extremely close way, until common sense kicked in and I saw it all for what it really was.
Okay, now that I finally gotten all of that stuff out of the way, what about the film itself? Well, I do have to admit that it was more entertaining, and certainly more funny, than I had expected it to be, but I think a large part of that is because my expectations were fairly low. The audience I saw it with, which was made up of both children and fully-grown adults (no doubt most of them were fans), laughed out loud every time the Turtles did something funny, usually Mikey. Sadly some of the humor gets pretty juvenile, including one admittedly expertly timed fart joke, but it did it's job to get up to laugh, almost like I was literally watching the 80s cartoon turtles now older, with fouler mouths and on steroids. One scene toward the end see the Turtles riding an elevator up to the top of a tower and as they are waiting they engage in an impromptu beat-boxing session; every person in the theater laughed their butts off! But at the same time some of the humor gets gratuitous as well, like all of the times Mikey outright hits on April (which surprised me since on the current cartoon it is Donatello who has a crush on her), or a mid-credits scene where Mikey and Raph are out in broad daylight and just before people look up and spot them they both leap onto a Victoria's Secret billboard so that their shells are mistaken for three-dimensional breasts. I suspect the was producer Michael Bay squeezing in some of his usual humor where he could.
And while we are of that subject, Michael Bay's name now carries a stigma of badness whenever we hear it, and while his fingerprints are certainly on this film, he is still not the man behind the camera. The director is Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Wrath of the Titans), and lets be honest, this man doesn't have the most stellar resume so far, but it seems that he and Bay are of like mind in how these modern Turtles should come across, good or bad. The script is by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and you can clearly tell that this story went through multiple rewrites before arriving as it is now, what with the numerous coincidences, homages to previous versions, and a convoluted villain plan.
The scheme that Shredder and Sacks hatch for New York, dating as far back as the Turtles origins, is one of the most confusing and uninteresting plans I have seen in a while. Essentially, it involves developing this mutagen (yes, the same one that created the Turtles and Splinter) and using it to cure a virus that they themselves are going to unleash on the city first. The only possible reason I can fathom that the Foot Clan would want to cure their own virus is so the city will see them as heroes and give them authority...But then why send out the Foot Clan on a terrorist spree?! And that virus is clearly coming from Sachs's tower, so wouldn't he be incriminated for all this? It really is a lame scheme, and the fact that the climax bears a suspicious resemblance to the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man didn't help.
But that does bring me to another positive I'll give the film, the action. The fight choreography devised for these fully CGI characters is impressive. Splinter gets some very cool and quick movements with his tail that I don't think I have seen in other versions. His duel with Shredder is epic as he leaps around and Shredder throws dozens of blades from his armor that are magnetized to come back to him. The Turtles get a lot of action as well, but as I've said, most of it is just relying on size and brute strength instead of ninja stealth. The easy highlight of the entire film is an extended scene where the Turtles must use their shells to slide downhill in the snow as they work together to take out the Foot and rescue April and Vernon who are in a runaway truck. This scene is everything IGN claimed it was: incredibly fast-paced, exciting and clever, and it stands out as one of the better action scenes of the summer.
Still, the biggest weakness, to me at least, with this new TMNT is a lack of heart. That is not to say that their isn't any in the first, as the relationships between the Turtles and Splinter, and April's connection to them, is a major highlight, but somehow they just don't connect with me in the same way. I think there are three major reasons for this: first, because these Turtles are CGI instead of actors in rubber suits (yes, CG is amazing and it allows them to do more then suited actors ever could physically, but what the Jim Henson Creature Shop were able to accomplish in 1990 just impresses me more as an adult than what every big blockbuster is doing with CG now; plus, the Turtles feel much more like they belong in that physical space because they really are in that physical space). Second, because the script seems to rely on people previous knowledge of these characters to drive things along, to the point that near the end Raphael goes on this big apology speech about how much of a jerk he's been to everyone, even though we've only seen so much of it in the film. And third, somewhat like Transformers, we are largely seeing these characters through the eyes of others, so some things that should be key moments of character growth and development, like Leo and Raph's bitter rivalry for example, are either glossed over or teases in such a way that it almost feel like fan service. We clearly understand their character types--Leo the leader, Mikey the laid back one, Donnie the nerd, Raph the angry one--but that is about it.
The last big thing I'd like to discuss are the performances. Megan Fox, a source of controversy when her casting was first announced, is surprisingly capable this time as April O'Neil. No she is not the world's greatest actress, but for some reason her spunk and toughness seems to translate better here than what I have seen in some of her other performances. I like to think that she may have been putting in more effort this time since she has admitted to being a huge fan herself, but who knows for sure. Will Arnett is also prominently featured at Vernon Fenwick, a character originally created fro the 80s cartoon, and he plays it with it a consistent sense of comedic timing; not the best character to be sure, but not totally annoying either. William Fitchner is very calm and collected as Eric Sacks, but it seems that Fitchner is relying on his proven talent for character acting here and doesn't seem to be stretching his acting chops much for this role, not that the script requires him to. Alan Ritchson provides the motion capture and voice of Raphael, and he sells the character's usual attitude and brute toughness, this time emphasizing a very urban gangster-type feel to the character's mannerisms (helped by Raph's choice of dress). Noel Fisher probably steals the show among the Turtles as the motion capture and voice of Michelangelo, really capturing the laid back and humorously immature side of the character, though the surfer dude aspect the definitely dialed way back. Jeremy Howard provided the motion capture and voice of Donatello, and he really sells (maybe a bit too much) the nerdy archetype of the character, namely in the voice, which somewhat reminded me of Rob Paulson's performance in the current animated series in inflections, tone and cadence. Pete Ploszek provides the motion capture of Leonardo, while Johnny Knoxville provides the voice; the combined performance is serviceable, with Ploszek capturing Leo's straighter and more serious posture and Knoxville highlighting the serious leader character Leo is supposed to be, with the inner immaturity that come from being a teenager too. Danny Woodburn provided the motion capture for Splinter and Tony Shalhoub provides the voice, and together they do succeed in bringing the character to life, even if I do which Splinter's voice could have sounded a bit older and more Asian-influence like in some other adaptations; still, the physical performance is impressive, especially if Woodburn contributed anything to the way Splinter fights. Tohoru Masamune appears as Oroku Saki, a.k.a. the Shredder, but unfortunately he is one of the weakest parts of the entire film, and it pains me to say that about one of the greatest villains of my childhood. The character just has no depth of motivation to him whatsoever; even his history with Splinter and the Turtles is altered into something far less personal and therefore less interesting; ultimately, he is there to be the mandated antagonist to the Turtles and that's it. Whoopi Goldberg appears as April's boss Bernadette Thompson, an adaptation of another character from the 80s cartoon, but sadly she only appears for two scenes and her role is limited to being understandably skeptical of April's claims of their giant vigilante turtles running around New York. Two other popular characters from the mythology make appearances as well: the first is Minae Noji as Karai, but sadly her role is so minor that she might as well had not been there; the other is K. Todd Freeman as Dr. Baxter Stockman, but despite his name appearing in the credits I never spotted the character in the film myself, so this is likely a cameo appearance. Other performances include Abby Elliott as Taylor, Taran Killam as McNaughton, and Paul Fitzgerald as Dr. O'Neil.
Overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 is definitely not the best incarnation of the franchise ever made, but it is not the worst either. The action and comedy work well, the visual effects mostly satisfy, and it is absolutely something that will be a blast to young kids who are into the franchise right now. But after thirty years of constant variation, some of the changes made this simply won't appeal to everyone, and much of the heart of other versions is downplayed this time in favor of comedy, fun and bigger action sequences; for this reason, I would personally recommend that parents show their kids the 1990 film over this one, but to each their own. Either way, it is definitely worth checking out either as a matinee or when the DVD comes out at Redbox. I'm giving it an enthusiastic two stars.