Friday, August 8, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) Review: Heroes in a Half-Assed Shell

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fitchner, Johnny Knoxville, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shaloub, Whoopi Goldberg, Tohoru Masamune
Release Date: August 8, 2014
Presented in 2D and 3D

All it took was four words for the whole internet to turn against a new rebooted live-action take on the late 80s/90s mega-franchise that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: "Produced by Michael Bay".
And honestly, why wouldn't they? Michael Bay has made much of his fortunes off of  dumbed-down, much-hated new versions of various 80s properties, whether its directing the bloated explosion-fest Transformers series or producing stale, unnecessary reboots of revered horror icons like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Bay-owned production company behind those stale retreads, Platinum Dunes, is at it again with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and oooh boy did it not take them long to piss off nearly every Turtles fan on the planet. Leaked early versions of the script a few years back made huge deviations from the canon (in particular the idea of making the Turtles aliens instead of mutants) that practically embodied everyone's worst fears of what Hollywood's soulless monster Michael Bay was doing with their beloved childhood nostalgia, prompting a huge rewriting overhaul. Implications that the Turtles' traditionally-Japanese archenemy the Shredder would now be sneaky-faced white guy William Fitchner (he's a really good character actor, but still) drew even more ire from fans all too eager to bash this affront on their childhoods, and the reveal of the Turtles' designs in the first teaser trailer gave them whatever added ammunition they needed for mocking parodies like this one (along with many, many others).

To be fair, that one on the top really does look better than the face they went with...

The movie's certainly had one constant, seemingly never-ending uphill battle to try and win over audiences, and even the fact that Michael Bay isn't actually directing it hasn't assuaged anyone's pre-emptive ire or fears (the track record of the film's real director, Jonathan Liebesman, includes such defining classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans). Now that the film's finally been released to the public, I can honestly say this to all those many skeptical TMNT fans out there:
This is far from the worst that's ever happened to the Ninja Turtles franchise (that honour will always belong to the Coming Out of Their Shells music show, followed closely by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III), nor is it really the outright disaster that one would expect from a reboot with Michael Bay's name stamped on it.
Having said that, it's still an undeniably bad movie, but for (mostly) less exciting reasons than you'd think.

"Ow... still less painful than hearing Splinter sing about skipping stones, though..."

Our story begins with the criminal organization known as the Foot Clan, led by the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), striking terror into the hearts of New Yorkers. Wanting to take down the Foot while also finding a big break to be taken seriously as a journalist, news reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) follows fleeting evidence of an unseen vigilante taking the fight to the Foot. What she discovers is not one but four vigilante heroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: leader Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), angry wannabe loner Raphael (Alan Ritchson), nerdy tech whiz Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and the goofy, not to mention very horny Michelangelo (Noel Fisher). It turns out however that these Turtles are very familiar to April: they and their father/sensei Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub) were her childhood pets back when her father and industrial mogul Eric Sacks (William Fitchner) were using them as part of mysterious experiments that ultimately resulted in the Turtles' mutation and the deaths of several Sacks employees, including April's scientist father. Though April looks up to Sacks, it turns out (big shock) that he's actually been allied with the Shredder this whole time, and now wants to capture the Turtles and use their magic blood (yes, that dumb plot trope again, as if we didn't see enough of it in movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man) to launch a deadly mutation gas from a huge tower across New York City (once again ripped off from movies like The Amazing Spider-Man). With the reluctant help of news cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), can April help the Turtles save the day from Sacks and the Foot Clan before they can unleash their cliched diabolical plot? More importantly, will you find even one plot beat that isn't lazily ripped off from every other action blockbuster out there?

And even more importantly, will the movie feel obligated to sexualize Megan Fox, even though it's supposed to be made for kids? (Then again, you already know the answer to that one)

The centre of the film is its new twists on the Ninja Turtles' origin story, and I can officially say that it carries on Platinum Dunes' proud tradition of overexplaining and needlessly complicating a simple yet effective backstory. For decades now Splinter and the Turtles have had two variations of their origin story (one where Splinter was once a human martial arts master wrongly disgraced by Oroku Saki and left homeless in the sewers, the other having Splinter as a pet rat owned by a kind martial arts master that's murdered by Shredder), but one key detail remains constant: the toxic canister spill that mutates the turtles happens purely by accident. They don't have some great destiny they were born to fulfill- they're just fun-loving teenagers who love pizza, kick bad guy butt and try to fight the good fight because crime is a major bummer, dude. But the changes made here are not only pointless and unnecessary, but they feel incredibly forced and shoehorned, built around piles of coincidental connections between all the major characters. It just so happens that not only are April's father and main villain Eric Sacks responsible for the experiments that created Splinter and the turtles in a lab, but April even gave them their names when she was a kid! Then 15 years later, April just so happens to be the first human to discover the Ninja Turtles' existence, and in the very next scene she pulls out a box of her father's research explaining everything that she just had lying around in her closet all this time, and completely forgot about all this stuff until just now! (you think you'd more clearly remember this stuff when it involves, oh, I don't know, the death of your father) Then it turns out Eric Sacks just so happens to have been adopted and raised in Japan by the Shredder, and it just so happens that the Turtles are crucial to their whole deadly mutation virus plot. But wait, how did the Turtles even learn kung fu in the first place? Oh, that's easy- when they were kids in an abandoned sewer, Splinter just so happens to find a random "Art of Ninjitsu"book lying under some rubble, and uses that to teach himself and the turtles martial arts. That's not just lazy- it's insultingly lazy, and it's a clear case of trying to "fix" what was never broken in the first place in order to fit into some structure of bulls*** Hollywood screenwriting cliches.

But really all the dumb, needless changes you could make to the origin story wouldn't be enough to sink this movie on their own. Nah,  the overwhelmingly predictable, by-the-numbers story and plotting do more than enough damage to sabotage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mere minutes into its (mercifully reasonable) running time. Every beat feels stale and familiar, making the viewing experience less like watching an engaging narrative unfold and more akin to sarcastically asking yourself "Gee, I wonder what's going to happen now?" over and over again. Literally nothing takes you by surprise or does anything that you weren't already expecting, and that includes the film's humour. While the Turtles get a few amusing moments (in particular the elevator rap scene embedded below), much of their jokey banter and wackier antics is outright groan-inducing. But when the comedy scenes involve human characters? It practically redefines the term "dead on arrival", namely because none of these characters have any personality beyond the most stock, boring and one-dimensional ones the filmmakers could find at the second-hand screenwriting thrift store. The dialogue is so generic and half-hearted that the "jokes" practically blend in with everything else in a sea of blandness.

In fact, the movie is so focused on just putting checkmarks on its "To Do" List that it doesn't even bother to develop any of its characters whatsoever. Literally no one in this entire movie goes through any kind of character arc- no one grows, no one changes, no one provides any kind of emotional backbone for the rote story to fall back on. When Splinter is critically injured and left for dead (and can only be saved by, you guessed it, a "magic blood" antidote), we have almost no reason to care what happens to him because we hardly even learned much about him, and neither April or the Turtles seem to learn anything from the experience of trying to save him. The closest thing to an exception is Raphael, but not only is his arc the exact same thing we've seen the character go through in just about every other iteration of the series ("I think and act like I want to be a loner, but in reality I love my family more than anything!"), but the execution is so sloppy and rushed that it practically feels like his big epiphany moment at the end comes completely out of nowhere. It feels like all the in-between scenes that would have developed this arc are missing from the movie, most likely because the trio of screenwriters couldn't have been bothered to write said scenes in the first place.

Even the marketing tweets seem to have more effort put into them than this movie's script (and that's not saying much).

The visual effects are a mixed bag all around, with Shredder's bulky enhancements faring best. The motion-capture CG effects used to bring the Turtles to life are fairly expressive, decently detailed and have a few nice design touches (things like Donatello's tech goggles and Leonardo's more overtly samurai-esque clothing are neat), but they never really manage to feel like a physically believable presence, instead constantly reminding you that you're looking at a decently-constructed computer creation (plus their more human-like nostrils and lips are just as off-putting now as they were back when the trailers were first released). Splinter however fares worst, with an ugly CG model that looks like all the hair and body details are smoothed out, and large quasi human-esque eyes that look borderline soulless and devoid of any range of expression. Everything does moves fairly well in the film's competent yet occasionally choppy and mostly uninspired action sequences (a late-movie setpiece where April and the Turtles escape down a snowy mountain is the closest thing to a genuine highlight in the whole movie), and the 3D is implemented well in often-gimmicky ways, but none of its enough to save the visual and technical aspects of the film from being any less generic and indifferently-crafted than its script.

Pictured: Indifference

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won't quite leave you "shellshocked" (as the terrible end-credits rap song would suggest), but by no means is it anything other than a major letdown, both for longtime Turtles fans and younger newcomers to the franchise. The film only injects some new energy into the characters in the most rote and superficial ways, and there's not a single element that doesn't feel like it was hashed together from the spare parts of numerous other Hollywood blockbusters, many of which (like The Amazing Spider-Man) weren't even that good to begin with. It's like creating a Frankenstein's monster and trying to convince us it's "hip" and "fresh", but without putting any effort into hiding the hastily-sewn stitches that hold all the rotting parts together. Once you've watch that elevator rap clip posted earlier in this review, then there's no reason you need to see the rest of the movie- that's basically the full extent of what little it has to offer.
If you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet (and you should, because it's awesome), do yourself a favour and go see that instead. If you've already seen Guardians of the Galaxy, do yourself a favour and go see that again instead. If you have kids you want to take to the movies for a fun time, do yourself and them a favour and go see Guardians of the Galaxy (or really just about anything that doesn't have the words "Turtles" or "Planes" in the title) instead. If you really, really want to satiate some huge itch for a new take on Leo, Raph, Donnie and Mikey, then just stay home and watch some episodes of the current Nickelodeon TV series instead (trust me, it's genuinely pretty great). Because it's not just the Ninja Turtles who deserve better than a soulless, lazy, shamelessly cookie-cutter summer blockbuster like this one.

Final Review Score: 3 / 10

+ The Turtles themselves feel right for the most part, portrayed as more or less the same characters we all know and love
+ Shredder is actually pretty cool in this movie- imposing, formidable, and his bulky (almost mech-like) new design is great
+ A few fun moments here and there do eke out (the big action setpiece on a snowy mountain, the freestyle elevator rap)
+ Good use of 3D (okay, I might be grasping for straws now on this "Pros" column...)
+ Unlike so many other things with Michael Bay's name attached, the film avoids feeling needlessly bloated with a reasonable, fairly painless 100 minute runtime (yep, definitely grasping for straws now...)
+ It's still nowhere near as bad as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (okay,  I doubt that even counts as a compliment...)

- The whole film feels overwhelmingly predictable, by-the-numbers, generic and derivative
- The changes to the Turtles' origin story are egregious, needlessly complicated and built around a ridiculous number of inane, forced coincidental connections
- Every single human character is stock, bland and one-dimensional, and there's nary a single character arc to hold the story together
- The humour ranges from kind of amusing to groan-inducing when it involves the Turtles, but with the human characters it's consistently dead on arrival
- The film's CGI visual effects creations are a mixed bag, with Splinter in particular looking downright ugly and off-putting
- Action scenes are generally competent yet mostly uninspired
- Various instances of characters making glaring oversights or outright stupid decisions (particularly April)
- Forced, often lame references to famous lines/catchphrases from the original cartoon (though hearing Shredder say "Tonight I dine on turtle soup" is awesomely hilarious)
- Michelangelo's constant horniness for April borders too much on creepy territory...