It’s been very entertaining seeing how upset some fans are about this new Michael Bay vision of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with a lot of the complaints “They’re ruining it!”and from those angered about changes to the source material. For myself it would have been strange to try to be a TMNT purist, since this has been a franchise that has been changed over and over and over again. Unless you were a die hard fan of the original, a 1984, black and white comic book, it’s difficult to make any claim to being a fan of the “real” Ninja Turtles – after all, the late 1980s animated series (and accompanying toy-line) that made TMNT a true cultural phenomenon was itself drastically altering the depiction and tone of the original characters.
The best way to enter the theater for this film is with a clean slate. Perform a mental Etch - A - Sketch and start all over. You need to know that this is not the TMNT of your childhood 80's memories or even it's current animated incarnation. This is a newer and more updated 2014 model.
So how is it? Well, it’s not as bad as you might think.
The basics of the story essentially remain the same as in all the other versions. New York is under siege by criminals called the Foot Clan, under the command of a leader called the Shredder. Young, intrepid reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) stumbles upon the Foot being thwarted by mysterious vigilantes and soon discovers these vigilantes are teenagers… and mutants… and ninjas …and turtles!
The new TMNT comes from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, with a script by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Wrath of the Titans). And yes, this team made some major and minor tweaks to the TMNT cannon, the Foot are not Ninjas' or robots, they are more of a mercenary group of black clad fighters.
Then we need to take a look at the physical differences to the Turtles themselves, who are far larger and more physically imposing than we’ve ever seen them before. This feels like a miscalculation, as it really does take away from the whole ninja aspect of the characters - as much as I'm not against changes in general, "Ninja" is literally right there in the title after all. While we see Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael show off their martial arts skills, it just seems to me that they are stronger , faster, and more indestructible than what we are used to. They could beat the foot without the Ninja skills that they are known for.
Also, this film falls into the same trap a ton of superhero movies have before making it necessary to tie all the characters’ history together all before the end of the film. April, her late father and her father’s boss, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) are all notably connected into the history of the Turtles and their master Splinter in a manner that feels forced and unnecessary – and also means there’s some huge coincidence involved in her coming into contact with all of these characters during the events of the film.
The film has its merits though. While their designs are a bit wonky, one thing the film does a very good job portraying is the actual interplay between the four Turtles. After a bit of a sluggish opening, the film gains a lot more humor and charm when the title characters come out of the shadows and begin to get more camera time, joking and bantering together. The core traits of the characters are retained, and there are some appreciated nods to the history of TMNT across various media, including funny asides to some less than stellar moments.
Michelangelo is probably the character that comes off best here, given an endearingly laid back demeanor (but not complete surfer dude persona, as in other depictions), along with a notable crush on April that is often used in humorous ways. The film could have dialed back on Donatello's "nerd" persona a bit, which includes taped up glasses, but otherwise, he, the ever-angry Raphael and the natural leader Leonardo are about what you'd expect. It should also be noted that the CGI Turtles and Splinter mostly look pretty good as far as the FX go, except for a few action moments where seeing them move more quickly sometimes leads to them feeling a bit more cartoonish and a bit campy .
While the Turtles get their due, and Splinter gets to kick a bit more butt himself than in some iterations of TMNT, the human characters in the film are just sort of there. Fox is fine as April, but the film is incredibly heavy handed in how she is oh-so inspired by the kindly Eric Sachs, who is – SPOILER – actually hiding some dark secrets. The dependably funny Will Arnett gets a few laughs as Vern Fenwick, April’s cameraman, a character from the original animated series. Fichtner is, as always, a cool and charismatic presence. Whoopi Goldberg somewhat randomly pops up in just a couple of scenes as April's skeptical boss, in a fairly forgettable role.
The highlight of the film is a prolonged action scene, glimpsed in the trailers, involving the Turtles sliding downhill in the snow on their shells, which also involves the Foot, a runaway truck and more. This is an incredibly fast-paced, exciting and clever sequence that stands out as one of the best action set pieces of any of the big summer movies this year. Unfortunately, nothing else in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ever matches this portion, but it’s still worth noting that the film, at least briefly, is able to deliver such thrills. And even as the filmmakers decreased the importance of the ninja part of the title, they do have fun with the turtle part, as those shells sure come in handy several times, in various ways.
It’s a shame that excitement doesn’t carry through the whole movie, and the energy so often lags, especially given the movie’s storyline has some notable flaws and the film often slows down in-between bigger action scenes. Yes, this is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and no one is expecting something intricate or detailed story-wise, but it’s hard not to notice that the bad guys’ main plan has some massive holes in it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t great, nor is it a disaster. There have been better stories made about these characters, including the 1990 feature film, but there also have been plenty of weaker ones. Despite the strange revamp of the Turtles into huge, super-powered behemoths who seem ready to throw down with Colossus or the Thing, the film does a nice job of capturing their brotherly in-fighting, camaraderie and rapport. Much of the movie is just sort of “there” though, except for that notably entertaining snow-based action sequence – which stands out for also having fun taking the Turtles out of their usual city terrain.