Movie Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Tony Shaloub
Jonathan Liebesman

Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot has been the subject of much debate ever since it was announced, with fake script leaks and silly rumors inducing panic among the property’s fanbase (not to mention providing ammunition to a legion of snarky Internet commenters), most of which proved to be patently untrue. That’s not to say that the finished product is going to make everyone happy, but it also isn’t nearly the disaster that many feared it would be with Michael Bay involved. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining at times provided you check your brain at the door and don’t mind that the film is basically feeding off the fumes of your childhood. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” delivers a slightly different take on the series – something that’s occurred with every rendition – and though it gets some things wrong along the way, it gets just as much right.

The general plot is pretty much the same. New York City is being terrorized by a criminal organization called the Foot Clan under the command of a shadowy figure known only as The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). But there’s a group of vigilantes silently serving as the city’s protectors, and ambitious news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is determined to uncover their identities… only to find that the mystery men aren’t men at all, but rather oversized mutant turtles skilled in the art of ninjitsu. Raised by their sensei Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), the four turtles – Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) – were created in a test lab by a pair of scientists, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) and April’s late father, who believed that they perished in a fire before the mutagen they were injected with transformed them. But when Sachs, now a powerful businessman secretly working alongside The Shredder, learns of their existence, the Turtles’ sewer home is attacked, forcing them to come out of hiding and take the fight to the bad guys.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has its share of problems – from its assembly-by-committee script to the generic action sequences (save for a cool showdown between Splinter and Shredder) – but the biggest annoyance from a fan standpoint is the completely unnecessary revisions to the origin story, which shoehorns in a connection between April and the Turtles for no apparent reason than because that’s how most blockbusters operate these days. There also isn’t a whole lot of character development, although that seems to be the case with just about every movie Bay’s name is attached to, especially when it comes to the human characters. Fox fares better than usual, but that’s not saying much for someone who wears the same blank expression for most of the film; Fichtner gets very little to do as the main villain; and Masamune’s Shredder feels more like the muscle than the domineering big bad that he should be. Will Arnett at least earns some laughs as April’s wise-cracking cameraman, Vernon Fenwick, but the real stars are the men behind the titular heroes.

You never see their faces (or in the case of Pete Ploszek, even hear his voice, since Leonardo has been curiously redubbed by Johnny Knoxville), but the four actors who play the Turtles really capture their spirit and brotherly camaraderie. The visual effects wizardry that’s been applied to their mo-cap performances is top-notch as well, proving once again why this technology is incredibly useful in not only creating more realistic CG characters, but giving them a human element that could never be achieved by men in rubber suits. Each Turtle has his own distinct personality, and though they appear a bit cartoonish during some of the overblown action sequences, their overall design is grounded more in reality than past incarnations, falling somewhere between Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s gritty comic book version and the 1980s animated version.

Hot on the heels of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it’s also nice to see another comic book movie that isn’t drowning in angst, because while “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is never as lighthearted as it could be, the film is serious when it needs to be serious, and funny when it needs to be funny. The fact that it moves at such a brisk clip certainly helps, particularly for a movie targeted towards ADD-riddled teens. There are some fun in-jokes for adult fans who grew up watching the Turtles as kids, but “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is essentially a live-action cartoon and should be judged accordingly. It’s far from a great film, but it also doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, and if that means going a little easier on it than other summer movies with many of the same problems, then so be it, because that’s a perfectly acceptable cost of getting to relive a piece of my childhood, even just for a moment.