Review: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES Chooses Not To Compete, And Succeeds

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Michael Bay gets his hands on another beloved property from our childhoods, but as producer of a new live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature his signature influence is somewhat muted. Director Jonathan Liebesman instead delivers a superhero adventure pitched squarely at the kids, with Megan Fox and William Fichtner providing human support alongside a quartet of mo-capped anthropomorphic reptiles, and the results are goofy, juvenile, shambolic, but admittedly quite entertaining.

This year's blockbuster season has proved one of the most formidable and competitive in recent years, with a string of grand scale, franchise-driven juggernauts taking the box office by storm. For a troubled property like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has never found a truly comfortable home in any medium, it's been a sorry-looking summer. 

Any superhero movie is going to balk at the prospect of opening so close to two new Marvel Studios properties - Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy - especially when many have touted them as some of the best entries in the MCU to-date. With a plot centring on genetically-mutated animals, it's going to be tough going not to draw comparison to both Gareth Edwards' Godzilla and Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. To top it all off, TMNT has to contend with being "the other Michael Bay movie" of the year, following hot on the heels of billion-dollar behemoth Transformers: Age of Extinction

Not that any of that should matter, but it does. Audiences and critics get burnt out, the market gets saturated, and when a film dares not to compete with the biggest and best of its competitors that can easily be misinterpreted as incompetence. Along the way, it seemed every step the project took was met with criticism, skepticism or vitriolic ire: Michael Bay producing, substantial rewrites late into pre-production, Megan Fox cast as the female lead, the new turtle design giving them nostrils. Even Liebesman's filmography offered little to get get excited about. It's fair to say, people were primed and ready to outright hate this film (even I had it pegged as the summer's most-likely turkey).

Growing up in the late-80s, early-90s it was impossible to avoid the Turtles. Even in England, where they were cautiously re-named Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and Michelangelo's nunchakus were airbrushed away, they were everywhere. That said, despite the heroes in half-shells appearing on everything from pencil cases to duvet covers, I somehow managed to avoid ever reading one of the comics or seeing any of their film or television offerings. Perhaps I was a fraction older than the age range they were being pitched to, or I simply had enough on my plate, somehow they never got to me and as I got older, I felt no compulsion to get caught up. Suffice to say, I approached this new film with a vague overview of the characters, their origins, cohorts and enemies, but with no emotional investment in the property whatsoever. Perhaps for that reason, I found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be pretty entertaining. 

Megan Fox stars as April O'Neill (originally a lab assistant but long ago repurposed in the franchise as an intrepid, spunky NYC reporter), who tires of her fluff news stories and hankers for a break in the ongoing Foot Clan case - an organised crime syndicate terrorising the city. On witnessing a masked vigilante stop a Foot robbery at the dockyards, O'Neill takes her scoop to editor Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg), only to be laughed out of her office. Going it alone, O'Neill soon finds herself face to face with Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, a foursome of adolescent mutated turtles proficient in martial arts and pop culture, but hidden away in the city's sewers by their over-protective rat mentor/father, Splinter.

From there the plot follows a number of paths: O'Neill looking to break her story and get her job back, the turtles coming of age, learning to trust and respect each other (as well as humans), and everyone working together to stop the evil plans of wealthy industrialist Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) and the Foot Clan - led by evil Japanese samurai warrior Shredder. It's all very cliched, by-the-numbers and oftentimes absurd, but the film knows better than to waste its energies selling Sachs' plans to get "stupid rich" by gassing Manhattan and instead hones in on the humorous interplay between its heroes. 

The comedy is broad, absolutely, but some of it is genuinely funny. The four turtles each have their defining character traits, which complement each other's but also see Leonardo and Raphael clash for authority within the group. April is welcomed into their lair, and repeatedly hit on by the slow-witted and ever-so-slightly creepy Michelangelo. In fact, April is hit on by pretty much everyone in the film, not least her cocksure co-worker Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett). His banter may not be razor sharp, but their scenes together do raise consistent laughs throughout. April also has a backstory that links her father to Sachs and the turtles themselves, but as that may not be canon, I'll avoid going into detail.

FX work in the film varies substantially throughout. The performance capture turtles never look real but are brought to life by athletic performances and strong voice work. Splinter, on the other hand, looks more like a deformed horse than a rat and is a jarring visual presence whenever on screen. The action sequences for the most part are energetic and coherent, especially a fantastically orchestrated crash down a snowy mountain-side in which the turtles must contend with the semi-truck and trailer they have commandeered as well as a number of pursuit vehicles, while careening uncontrollably downhill at high speed. It's an incredibly CG-heavy sequence, but thanks to Bourne series second unit director Dan Bradley, is staged rather wonderfully.

As one would expect from this type of lower-tier, child-friendly larger-than-life adventure film, performances generally lack nuance or subtlety. Fichtner and Arnett are essentially playing themselves, effortlessly intimidating and charming-on-the-verge-of-sleazy respectively, and as such are fine. Goldberg isn't on screen long enough to make too much of an impression, while the voice work - from the likes of Tony Shaloub and Johnny Knoxville among others - is largely anonymous. There's also a brief but hilarious turn from Abby Elliott as April's roommate. All eyes, however, will be on Megan Fox, taking on only her second lead role (after Jennifer's Body) and back in Michael Bay's good graces after famously getting fired off Transformers 3 for claiming he was "worse than Hitler". Here Fox actually does pretty decent work. April is capable, sympathetic and driven by a desire to do the right thing and succeed in a challenging environment, never falling back on her good looks to get ahead, despite almost every male character treating her like a sex object. Fox rises above it, and all credit to her for doing so. 

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is unlikely to challenge Michael Bay's other summer offering at the top of this year's box office chart, and can't compete in terms of vision and prowess with most of the season's other superhero vehicles, that is no reason to write the film off entirely. Sure, it's silly, scrappy and childish, but it's also pretty funny and plenty of fun. It understands its characters and its audience and delivers precisely that, no more, no less. No half-measures, just half shells.
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  • RoboticPlague

    Should have just went with the turtles in suits from the first 3 movies. Would have been a hell of a lot cheaper and a hell of a lot better. I am still waiting for a film company to grow some balls and make movies for adults. The core audience of TMNT and Transformers etc are in their late 20's early 30's. Yes I know it is a business and they want to sell toys and make the movie rated G. You could make movie like TMNT and give it a much more adult pg-13 or hell even go R. Unless there is constant nudity and f bombs and Machine Girl like violence parents are still going to take their children to see it. Marvel could step up and start doing some of their more mature comics. Make a good Punisher with an actual good director such as Gareth Evans. Bring back Blade also. In short will I be seeing this movie? Yes. Will I enjoy? Possibly.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    "This year's blockbuster season has proved one of the most formidable and competitive in recent years, with a string of grand scale, franchise-driven juggernauts taking the box office by storm."

    You DO realize this statement is just completely contrary to facts? Not a single one of this year's blockbusters has retained much speed past the second or third week. None is a breakout. Box Office is down. Doom-sayers are everywhere. Yes, there are several $100 millionish-openers, which is nothing to sneeze at until you realize all the takes are inflated, as have been budgets and marketing campaigns.

    Seriously, unless GUARDIANS has real legs (as opposed to imaginary, golly-I-wish-'cause-I-just-love-Marvel-so prosthetics), characterizing this summer as juggernaut-driven is simply specious hoo-ha that calls the credibility of your entire article into question.

    Note: if you wanted to say it's been a year of good blockbusters, offering more pleasing, above-average movies than any summer in memory, I probably wouldn't fault you, but you had to go all-Box Office and Stormy, which is a clear delusion.

  • billydaking

    To be honest, very few blockbusters have retained "legs" beyond the first few weeks for more than a decade now. This is what happens when you release more than 300 films in a year, and why studios release major films on more than 3,000 screens in the first week and then slowly pull back. The Avengers was an anomaly; the days of a blockbuster pulling in near equal take on a weekly basis are long, long gone.

    For the record, domestic (U.S.) grosses for some of the films Ben mentioned:

    1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier--$259,322,890; was the top grossing film for three weeks straight, finished second in the fourth week, continued to pull in millions for another four weeks (for point in comparison, The Avengers dropped below $1 million weekly take after 12 weeks).

    2. Godzilla--$200,270,209; was the no. 1 movie its opening week, then fell below $1 million weekly take after 7 weeks.

    3. Transformers: Age of Extinction--$242,124,910; was the no. 1 movie two weeks, after 6 weeks, it pulled in $7.2 million last week.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    Thank you for further illustrating my point. Blockbusters just ain't pulling what they used to, relatively speaking. Now, you could argue market saturation. I could argue there is little cross-demographic appeal to any of them. Tween girl fantasy and superhero formula --- no matter what you want to claim --- just won't bring in a broad audience beyond a pre-sold base.

    Yet, the hype continues to get exponentially louder and shriller, contrary to common sense and real, measurable statistics. I understand, every generation wants to be enthusiastic about its "stuff," but it's just getting tiresome and borderline obnoxious.

    Opening weekend, 10 million people saw GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in the US. That's 3% of the population. I'm not denigrating the number. It's a number. But, think of it this way, in 2000, the same number of people saw X-MEN, its opening weekend (with fewer showings at fewer theaters). That's fourteen years of FLAT.

    You wanna champion the quality of a film? Be my guest. That's interesting to me. Talking ceaselessly about somebody else's money? Yawn. Using a measure of somebody else's money to suggest value or worth? Stop.

    Sorry. Somebody was saying something about giant turtles?

  • marshy00

    Yeah, as Ben said, I wasn't referring to US box office, but global, which is definitely on the rise. That should have been obvious from the reference to TF4's "billion-dollar" haul.

  • benu

    Just to back James' statement up with a little context that may help: He's based in HK, and so I tend to think the above statement was made in relation to international box office outside of the U.S. domestic, which is no doubt down.

    Carry on.

  • Sonny Hooper

    You admit that you never read the comic or watched the cartoon or the previous movies yet you feel comfortable saying that the TMNT " never found a truly comfortable home in any medium"? I'd say they were very comfortable in the original medium since that is why/where they were created. Such an odd criticism. Likewise you think that people are going to compare TMNT to Godzilla (because they're all reptiles, presumably, although I don't see people going "already saw one giant CGI lizard, so never mind about the ones that talk and are ninjas) yet you don't mention how people might compare them to Rocket Raccoon, which is a more obvious point of comparison. Still, glad you liked the movie.

  • billydaking

    You criticize the comparison to Godzilla yet ignore the same comparison to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the same breath, thus completely missing the obvious point that all three films are heavily focused on CGI-animated animals as the selling point of the film (unlike Rocket, who was just a part of Guardians),

  • Sonny Hooper

    Um, Planet of the Apes involved CG-mo-cap talking apes, so the comparison is apt (hence why I didn't ignore it, but accepted it as an entirely valid point to make). Godzilla is just another giant CGI monster that stomps and roars, nothing more. As for Rocket - Guardians was definitely sold on the power of Rocket and Groot. Those are the two characters everybody remembers from that movie. They are the selling point.

  • marshy00

    Yeah, Rocket probably should've been mentioned too.

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