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Even at a young age, I never understood the appeal of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Adapted from a dark, brooding comic book series into a bubbly, lighthearted TV cartoon-then-film series, the franchise always seemed just too silly and indigestible for my taste, much like the Transformers series. Keep in mind that this is the same kid who loved Pokémon.
Needless to say, when it was announced that the series would be getting a big-screen update for the new generation, I didn’t quite care one way or the other. That is, until I started to see the promotional material. Then I became interested, not because I thought it looked good but rather because it looked like a glorious misfire of outrageous proportions. Everything — and I mean everything — about it seemed wrongheaded and reading the frustration and confusion from its fans filled me with a weird sense of devilish glee.
Well, after months and months of trash talking this new Michael Bay-produced reboot, I felt that I needed to see the movie for myself (if it was free, which it was for me) just to see if it really, truly was as bad as the promotional materials made it seem. Having seen the movie, I can say that my bottom-of-the-barrel expectations were not quite met. It's not Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. That said, this slick but lifeless adaptation is not so much an expensive train wreck as it is simply a brooding bore.
Following into the generic early steps of the series, this new TMNT movie follows struggling journalist April O’Neil (Megan Fox). She discovers a mutated group of anthropomorphic turtles, who fight as a group of vigilantes in the wake of a city-wide destruction of the foot clan, led by Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). From there, it’s loud noises, explosions, CG-drained action scenes and bad humor galore.
Despite Bay not being in the director’s chair, TMNT sure looks and feels like one of his films — playing a lot to his signature visual style and storytelling aesthetics, if with more restraint and a shorter running time. That’s because real director Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle: Los Angeles) continues his trajectory as a director-for-hire. He rarely executes any of his own sensibilities (if he has any) in favor of making his film a carbon copy of his peers' work. This movie mimics Bay’s films, yet still cannot capture whatever appeals to people about his movies.
That said, there’s no faulting this movie for looking nice, as cinematographer Lula Carvalho gives the movie a nice sheen, without sacrificing the movie’s blockbuster-style grandiose. It’s just a shame that the director and producers don’t know what kind of blockbuster they are trying to make. Liebesman seems constantly at odds with giving the movie the same carefree spirit of the original cartoon and ‘90s movies, while also giving it the sullen edginess most often associated with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.
This hodgepodge of tones never truly mixes, creating emotional tugs that never connect and humor beats that often feel either forced or awkward (or both). As far as the movie’s action goes, it’s not awful but it often feels so sterile and fake that it quickly grows more and more tiresome. While the effects themselves are not bad, they never feel like they are part of their environment — like they did in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earlier this summer. This is especially the case during the movie’s action scenes, which never capture the punchiness they want because they always look like cartoons fighting cartoons or people fighting cartoons.
The moments where the movie is at its best and most inspired, however, are when it focuses on the growth and rise of these titular characters. In particular, a comic book-esque introduction to these characters before the title card even appears is among the movie’s most well produced moments, fitted with beautiful animation and a pulpiness that disappeared would become missing as the movie progressed.
Later on, in a montage showing the turtles’ uprising and understanding of the ninja ways, there is one particularly beautiful passing-of-time shot that is not only richly realized but creative in a movie that never feels so. Additionally, the scene showcasing these child turtles grow up is the one time where the humor of the movie feels any sense of spark or humanity. Even if, yes, it is focused on mutant turtles whom here, for once, don’t look like grotesque freaks of nature.
One of the biggest problems here is that, quite frankly, the producers don’t know what to do with these turtles. They try to give them personalities — even trying to make Donatello (Jeremy Howard) more than just the one with the purple bandanna — but these efforts either feel too half-assed or confused. The filmmakers didn't seem to know who should be the turtles’ leader; Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville) or Raphael (Alan Ritchson). Instead of creating an interesting subtext on how one or the other has authority issues, they simply just try to make them both the head of the group, to clumsily footed results.
As far as the performances go, the only ones that stand out are the ones motion-captured for these turtles and William Fichtner as Eric Sacks. Masamune is fine but is rarely on screen. When he is, he is barely given anything to do. Then again, Shredder rarely does anything in these movies anyway. Fox gives a little more effort here than usual but can’t sell a reaction shot for her life. Will Arnett, as the non-turtle comic relief, often looks just tired and unsure of what exactly he should do. It seems like he wants to give it his all but is constantly weighed down by his limited screen time and his inability to connect to his CG surroundings and characters.
Having watched the original movies for the first time leading up this, it is easy to see that, while the writing is equally as awful, the effects were as cheesy as their pizzas and the jokes often fall flat, at least they were consistent and tried to be charming. They felt like movies still made by people, even if some of them were board executives.
This new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie feels like a movie made by computer, one trying to translate human humor and activity but never feeling anything but hollow and soulless. Everything feels too calculated and overdone, especially when its obnoxious product placement is on screen (and people thought it was bad in Man of Steel). The best thing to say about this movie is that it is just a shell of its former self.
Image courtesy of Peter West/ACE/INFphoto.com