At The Movies - Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

WARNING: There will be quite a few spoilers in this review, which is uncharacteristic of me as I try to avoid being too in-depth about plot when it comes to movies, television or videogames.  Still, in this particular review they are unavoidable.  If you care about that kind of thing, come back later after you’ve seen the film.  If not, proceed.

Thursday night 9 PM.  I have several articles I am currently working on and some real life responsibilities to take care of as well:  My options were the following:  I could sit at home and watch TNA Impact Wrestling while doing laundry, I could work on an upcoming review of the most shallow game on the planet, Kim Kardashian:  Hollywood, I could work on infuriating a bunch of grown men who play with horse dolls with by writing my review on the “Brony” documentary, or I could go out and see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in hopes that it exceeded my low expectations.

Obviously, you’re reading this so you know what my choice ended up being.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those beloved franchises, such as Transformers, G.I. Joe, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Masters of the Universe and Thundercats, which tend to have been influential in the youth of most of the 25 through 35 year old males of today.  As such I have a special place in my heart for the Ninja Turtles (TMNT, for short).  I fondly remember the first time TMNT appeared on the silver screen; back in those days, cartoons becoming movies wasn’t the norm, so it was kind of a big deal – real life renditions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  In 1990 there was also not a big focus on computer-generated characters or graphics.  In those days, you had costumes, and I dare say, it was pretty sweet.

Those days are gone and for better or worse CG is now “it” in terms of special effects.  Something is usually lost in the translation.  Still, despite the fact that this “reboot” of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sounded pretty awful from pre-production until now, I decided I was not going to judge it based on hearsay.  I went into this film not with high expectations, but with a clear mind that did its best to put away any and all biases because let’s be honest, this movie had a plethora of negative mojo for those going in.

For starters, last week saw the opening of arguably the biggest film of the summer, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which managed to wow pretty much anyone and everyone who saw it – in terms of plot, special effects, soundtrack, acting, directing, overall presentation, Guardians is a must-see film.  A review is available here and all I can say is that if you have not seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet, what the hell is wrong with you and why are you reading this instead of watching that?  Yes, it was THAT good.

Some people consider this man the Hollywood version of the Antichrist. 

Some people consider this man the Hollywood version of the Antichrist. 

Secondly, Michael Bay’s involvement with this project as the producer soured many of us nerds and fan-boys right from the start despite the fact Bay is not the director of the film.  Bay had already done a questionable job with Transformers, so many people felt putting another major 1980s/1990s franchise in his lap was a “bad idea.”  Rumors swelled that the Ninja Turtles would now be “outer space aliens” and that the main antagonist, Shredder, was now a Caucasian named “Schrader.”  Luckily these bad ideas were nixed before filming.  But the damage was done and in a society based on instant messaging, social networking, bandwagon hive-minded thinking, and people taking assumption and turning it into fact in their own minds, many people already decided “I’m never going to see this film, ever,” before anything was really known about it.  For the record, Bay is the producer, and Jonathan Liebesman of Wrath of the Titans and Battle of Los Angeles fame is responsible for this one, so please direct your hatred a little more accurately.

The Goddess of Shallowness.

The Goddess of Shallowness.

Finally, the casting of Megan Fox as April O’Neil did nothing to sweeten the sour taste in the mouths of pretty much everyone.  Fox’s 15 minutes of fame are pretty much up, and it’s gotten to the point where her looks no longer cover up the fact she’s just not a good actress (Jonah Hex, anyone?).  Megan Fox was a female lead in the first two Transformers films (directed by Bay), and so she was automatically looked at with the “oh no, not HER again” glance.

Anyway, despite factors working against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I figured that I should give it a shot before listening to other reviewers and other critics, and even though I am reviewing this now, I will once again say only you as an individual can make the decision of what you like and what you don’t like; nobody else should do it for you.  I’m going to tear this baby open now with an old school reviewing tactic that might be cliché and unoriginal, but it’s going to be the most effective way to do this – the reviewing method of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” so here we go.

THE GOOD

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First of all, I was surprised by Megan Fox’s role as April O’Neil.  She may not be the best actress on earth, but damn it, for the first time ever, I think Fox actually TRIED.  The yellow jacket, the nosy reporter shtick, the fact she’s pretty – to be fair, it should not be difficult to BE April O’Neil.  She’s a key character, but she’s more or less the “damsel in distress” that gets the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in more trouble than she’s worth.  O’Neil is an aspiring journalist who is tired of covering diet tips and interviews with fitness gurus and wants to make a name for herself.  While investigating a criminal syndicate known as the Foot Clan her fate is eventually intertwined with that of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

The Turtles themselves are also not entirely terrible in terms of their individual personalities. 

Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), is the leader of the group.  He is a little uptight sometimes, and a bit bossy, but that’s because he’s the leader.  He’s the one with the blue bandana and wields a katana as his weapon of choice.

You know your life is pretty bad when you're "the ugliest Ninja Turtle."

You know your life is pretty bad when you're "the ugliest Ninja Turtle."

Raphael (Alan Ritchson), is the moody, angst-filled one.  You know, that’s what MOST teenagers tend to be.  Fiery is appropriate considering he’s represented by his red bandana.  He wields dual sais, short-range weapons which let him get up close and personal.  He’s a hot-head.

Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), is the partier and comic relief of the group, the most simple-minded yet always-seemingly-happy (and girl crazy) and the one of the four Turtles that uses the most slang.  He wears orange and wields Nunchaku.

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Donatello (Jeremy Howard), is the nerd of the group – heavily into gadgets, gizmos and various electronics, he’s the smartest of the four, clad in purple and wields a bo staff.

I have to say that the four personalities are true to the TMNT in most of the other versions of the characters and this was a pleasant part of the film.  Overall the characters themselves were amusing and that’s something you want in a TMNT film.

THE BAD

This is where we start getting into the main hurdle that the TMNT reboot faces:  The plot itself. Filled with inconsistencies, pointless changes, and overused superhero-and-action-film clichés, TMNT suffers from a few things that only left me with a slight headache.  It may leave you with migraines, disgust, apathy, anger, nausea, diarrhea, and suicidal tendencies.  Do not take the 2014 reboot of TMNT if you are pregnant as it is known to cause mental retardation in unborn fetuses.  I’m going to go into the problems with the plot, and once more I am warning you spoilers are ahead.

--April O’Neil is made TOO important.

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As previously stated, O’Neil is a damsel in distress for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, often finding herself in compromising situations.  I also made mention that Fox really tried this time.  And that would have been alright, had not the plot of the film gone into “Vintage Michael Bay” mode and suffered from the same problem the Transformers franchise did:  too much focus on the human, not enough on the headline characters of the film.  O’Neil goes from damsel-in-distress to such a pivotal character that the movie should have been named “20 Year Old Human TV Reporter” instead.  It is revealed early on that April O’Neil’s father worked in the lab that produced the Mutagen Ooze that transformed the Ninja Turtles, that she gave them their names as a child in the lab, fed them pizza, and then during a lab accident which killed her father, threw the four turtles and the rat Splinter (who would become their father figure) into the sewers to save their lives.  April goes from damsel-in-distress to “creator of the Ninja Turtles.”  This alone is enough to make fans explode in violent fits of nerd anger.

--Shredder is made TOO unimportant.

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Every good hero needs a good villain and few villains are as enjoyable as the arch-nemesis on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Oroko Saki, also known as The Shredder.  Clad in Samurai armor, Shredder is the leader of the Foot Clan, a criminal organization of Ninja.  Unfortunately in this particular film, Shredder (portrayed by Tohoru Masamune) is horribly minimized.  We never learn his real name, we barely get a backstory, and his motivations make very little sense as his plan is to unleash a virus into New York City to strike fear, panic and destruction – but what he really gets out of it is, well, nothing at all.  Since we never get to really KNOW the Shredder, his motivations are practically non-existent other than a really bad knockoff of Ras Al-Ghul’s plan for Gotham City in Batman Begins.  Only in Batman Begins, we got to find out WHY Ras was doing what he was doing.  Arguably the best part of Shredder is his introduction and it is all downhill from there.

--Learn Ninjitsu In 3 Easy Steps From 1 Discarded Book

Splinter isn't facing the camera because he is ashamed, as he should be.

Splinter isn't facing the camera because he is ashamed, as he should be.

In the original TMNT, The turtles learn Ninjitsu because of Hamato Yoshi, the once rightful leader of the Foot Clan, who was ousted by Shredder and forced into a life of poverty and humiliation.  Hamato Yoshi becomes Splinter the Rat due to contact with Mutagen Ooze and the rats that infest the sewers he was forced to live in (Mutagen transforms humans into whatever animals they come into the most contact with).  Although the 1990s film separated Hamato Yoshi and Splinter into two separate characters, they had a really good sub-device which was that Splinter the rat was Yoshi’s pet, smarter than a normal rat, and from his cage used to mimic what he saw his master do.  We get literally NONE of this in our reboot.  We get a discarded book about Ninjitsu which Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame) uses to teach himself Ninjitsu and then subsequently teaches it to the turtles.  Believe me, if we could learn Ninjitsu at the local Barnes & Noble from a book we would ALL do it.  Not only is it a weak way to funnel in the Ninjitsu, but since there is no tension between Splinter/Shredder, an important part of TMNT mythos is definitely lost.

--Annoying, Predictable Sub-Characters

Rounding out our cast of characters includes Will Arnett as Vernon, Whoopi Goldberg as Bern Thompson (turned from a fat white man to a fat black woman), Minae Noji as Karai (who is essentially a female version of Shredder’s right-hand man Tatsu from the 1990s film), and William Fichtner as Eric Sacks.

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First of all, there’s Vernon, the cowardly cameraman for April O’Neil and another classic character from the original versions.  The extent of Vernon’s character in the past was a creepy metrosexual pansy.  However, we get another “Vintage Michael Bay” device when Vernon is basically just Shia LeBeouf all-over-again.  A cheesy loser who keeps trying to sleep with Megan Fox, with occasionally brave moments mixed in, Vernon comes off as annoying more than interesting or even as comic relief.  By this point in cinema the “underdog who gets lucky” has worn out its welcome and viewers are tired of seeing it, and in this case it wasn’t necessary or cute or amusing.  It just made me hope someone would have been dark enough to have the character killed off.  Also if O’Neil can wear a loud yellow jacket, how come Vernon’s not wearing his trademark “ugly pink shirt?”

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Will Fichtner of Prison Break fame shows up as Eric Sacks, an important businessman, scientist and entrepreneur, which sadly is another overused and cliché character because from the get-go unless you are mentally retarded and have some kind of comprehension problem you expect “SWERVE! I’m the bad guy!”  We find out Sacks is a student of the Shredder, which comes off as annoying because for a guy who is supposed to be trained by a super-ninja, Sacks seems completely incapable and incompetent around other human characters in combat throughout the entire film.  Aside from that, who the hell decided to name a character in this film “Sacks?”  Every time I immediately associated this guy with “nutsacs” as in “the plot sucks nutsacs.” 

--Overused Plot Devices

Whether it’s the virus to destroy the city (which I previous mentioned was used in Batman Begins), the “my friends got captured” Rambo act (which happens at some point), whether it’s “the character the movie is NOT about is going to be the one that saves us all” (Shia LeBeouf in Transformers, AGAIN), or “it’s the ticking clock of doom that you’re going to stop 1 second before it goes off” (yawn), the plot seems to be filled with so many things we’ve already seen before that if it weren’t for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being such vibrant characters themselves, we’d be entirely bored with this.  On top of that the plot seems to have a lot of inconsistencies.

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The Mutagen is supposed to be an antidote for the “Evil Virus,” yet at one point they mention that Mutagen is alien in origin (someone still managed to stick alien crap in the plot).

-Splinter tells us that April O’Neil’s father died in a fire and he WITNESSED the whole thing.  Later Sacks says “I KILLED your father” despite a flashback sequence which already corroborated with Splinter’s story.

-Previously mentioned there is literally no benefit whatsoever to Shredder doing the things he is doing.  There’s no revenge plot, no glaring hatred of the Turtles, and hell there’s not even anything monetary or philosophical to be gained.  There’s legitimately no point to the Shredder in the franchise where he is the arch-enemy.  Anyway, we’ve been through the good, and the bad, and now it’s time for…

THE UGLY

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves have a rather substandard design in the film and look more like the original premise of the Turtles got injected with a heavy dose of anabolic steroids.  Many people have criticized the Turtles of being too bulky and looking less like Turtles and more like Shrek.  I didn’t find myself noticing it all that often, but generally that look is going to rub most people the wrong way and justifiably so.  Sure, the idea of humanoid turtles who practice Ninjitsu is far-fetched but it becomes a harder pill to swallow when the characters are so bulked up that the prospect of any agility whatsoever makes no sense.  It would be like the Juggernaut trying to be Spider-Man.  It just comes off as making any ninja fighting in the film look awkward.  Whoopi Goldberg looked more like a Turtle than the turtles did.

Splinter’s design isn’t as crappy as the four turtles but that’s really not saying much and sadly he gets overloaded with so many “Asian stereotypes” such as his hair in a little bun and a Fu Man Chu mustache that it looks cheesy.  As much as I wanted to avoid comparisons to other versions of the franchise the costumed characters of the 1990s had a better look than any of the CG shown in this film. PERIOD.

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Probably the worst of the bunch by far, however, has to be the Shredder himself.  For some reason this film decided to give Shredder a cumbersome, clunky, over-compensating cybernetic armor suit with retractable blades reminiscent less of the Shredder of the TMNT franchise and more like another sub-par film, The Wolverine’s rendition of The Silver Samurai.  Ninja are supposed to be graceful and this Poor Man’s Iron Man armor get-up they bring into the film was almost enough for me to give up entirely.

So this movie ends up 0-3 where it counts: the design, and if you’re not going to have a great plot at least make the characters look good. That did not happen.

SUMMING UP

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles [Blu-ray]
$4.99
Starring Elias Koteas, James Saito, Judith Hoag, Toshishiro Obata, Raymond Serra

I wanted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to fall into 50-50.  Instead it fell more along the lines of 75-25 with the 75 being in favor of “don’t bother.”  While the Turtle personalities were maintained and while Fox didn’t make a horrible April O’Neil, a bland plot, a poorly portrayed main villain, and glaringly bad inconsistency within the script itself make this one only watchable if you can get it for cheap or for free.  You’d best be served taking the money to buy this ticket to watch Guardians of the Galaxy a second time, or hell, for the price of the movie ticket or less you can buy the 1990s rendition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which was better both in terms of plot and of appearance. 

If you absolutely MUST see this film, I won’t stop you, but I also can’t recommend it.  I found it watchable but I also have a high tolerance for crap, I mean I sat through Joanie Laurer’s adult film “1 Night in Chyna” without vomiting. Maybe Chyna’s clitoris can play Krang in the TMNT sequel.  And with that horrible mental picture it’s now time for me to cut this review to a close.