Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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I love movies. If you’re reading this then you do too. I don’t want to hate movies, nor am I rooting for certain movies to be horrible (as if they deserve it).  I go into every movie optimistic, giving it the benefit of the doubt and expecting the best. Earlier this year, I walked out of a theater for the first time in my life. That was for the Michael Bay directed Transformers: Age of Extinction. Age of Extinction wasn’t so bad that it insulted me (or anything like that), it was just plain boring. It featured scene after scene of indistinguishable robots punching other indistinguishable robots, loud special effects, a “plot” derived from some random Texans and a history lesson featuring saturday morning cartoon mythology. Recapping what the movie featured, it should have been exciting and full of interesting robot knowledge. My wife and I just couldn’t watch it. We love movies, and we felt a better use of our time was to go get ice cream and talk about other good movies.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles marks the second time this year my wife and I have gone into the theater to see a Michael Bay produced product, and the expectations were low going in. Having pretty much no prior connection to previous iterations of Turtles, I received the marketing/hype of this new movie just as a moviegoer. Though Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has many problems that hurt it, the four heroes in a half shell bring enough energy/fun to the screen that make this a flawed yet enjoyable ride.

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It should be noted that Michael Bay is credited only as a producer on a film. The film was directed by Jonathan Liebsman (Battle: LA, Wrath of the Titans) and was written by a trio of writers who have worked on everything from Mission Impossible to Snow White and the Huntsman. The film is mainly told from the perspective of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a reporter who is suspicious of the recent crime streak perpetrated by the new crime organization, The Foot Clan. In her pursuit of a story, she discovers that certain vigilantes have been involved in stopping the Foot Clan’s activity. As it would happen, she comes face to face with the Turtles, is ostracized by her peers for believing in their existence and proceeds to discover their backstory while also helping the turtles save the day.

That plot synopsis may seem a bit odd to those who haven’t seen the film, how can April’s journey be involved in every step of the plot (including fight scenes between the Turtles and their arch enemy, Shredder)? That is a valid question. This is a movie entitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Correct? Sadly, this is the one area where Bay’s influence is seen. Just like the Transformers films, the titular characters are involved in the action of the movie and are fun cgi creations, but the progression of plot rests almost solely on the human characters. Unlike Transformers though, the Turtles are real characters that should be expanded upon. The film is afraid of spending too much time with the Turtles, and reverts back to April and Vern’s (Will Arnett) journey of discovering the mystery of The Foot Clan and Erik Sack’s (William Fichtner) company.

The film is dead set on keeping the story April-focused and that story is full of plot-holes and logic gaps. The film finds its antagonist in a reimagined Shredder (who is part samurai, part transformer) who is pretty bland and as straight-forward as a bad guy can be. Finally, the film suffers from the “everything is connected” plot device. Whether it is the Turtles, Shredder, April or other random characters, scenes of exposition slowly reveal that everyone is connected and that it was the Turtle’s destiny to become heroes. With all these story contrivances and off-kilter cgi at play, what’s holding back Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from being a theater-walk-out experience?

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Simply put, the Turtles work. Though the filmmakers are afraid of exploring the character of the Turtles, the Turtle screentime we are given is extremely successful. Whether they are making jokes or swinging weapons, the Turtles are great and you can see glimpses of a greater movie hidden in the midst of this mediocre movie.

The brothers conversations amongst themselves are usually light-hearted and showcase the different caricatures they each inhabit. Leonardo is the leader and is noble. Raphael is tough and doesn’t play well with others (I bet you can’t guess what he learns over the course of the film). Donatello is the techy of the group (i.e. nerd). And Michelangelo is the class clown/horny teenager of the group. Even though the brothers are reduced to a single character trait, it works and I wish we spent more time with them. As I just alluded too, the only Turtle-centered story element is Raphael’s journey into being a team player. The movie spends the rest of the time following April’s journalistic career, Erik Sack’s evil businessman plan and scenes of exposition in which characters explain to the audience the Turtle’s mythology.

I understand that this is the origin story of this franchise, so a lot of groundwork had to be laid. But it is possible to lay franchise groundwork while also giving your titular characters proper development.

Imagine if the plot of The Avengers was all about S.H.E.I.L.D. agents  talking about the Avengers; who they are, how the world will react to them, can they be trusted? The drama of the film comes from regular people reacting to the superheroes. Then at the end of the movie its time for an action scene and we switch over to the Avengers’ perspective and play out an action scene. We would be extremely disappointed. We don’t want a film where people talk about the Avengers, we want the drama of the film to come directly from the Avengers interacting with each other. Both the drama and the spectacle in that film came from the superheroes, and this is where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suffers the most.

Those Turtles are fun to be around and it is exhilarating to watch some of the action set pieces play out. There is enough Turtles in the film that it makes up for the extremely uninspired plot and over emphasis on extra characters. I’m hoping the future Turtles’ movies (as well as other team-up movies) will keep the story/drama focused in on the actual team. It’s possible to have a big dumb blockbuster about cartoon characters where we as an audience are invested and actually care about the big dumb cartoon character.

Grade: C

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