Green-tinted dudes fist bumping, flipping, fighting, wielding sharp objects while chowing down on Pizza Hut-branded pizza: 10-year-old boys will eat this up. It’s been thirty years since their creation, and it seems like kids are going to always love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even if they’re reborn as tools in a tone-deaf cash grab in 2014. That’s the beauty of the franchise. They’ve almost always been crazy cash grabs. Toy after TV show after movie after concert tour, you can hem and haw all you like about this being akin to urinating on an urn, but can you really go hard on a new iteration of the talking tortoises when previous installments had subtitles like “Secret of the Ooze” and Partners in Kryme and M.C. Hammer on the soundtracks?
In a way, Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is beyond criticism based on concept alone. Turtles fighting Shredders and saving the day – there is no logic or perfect pitch at which to receive four freak brothers fighting crime in New York City. They are defined by attitude, adolescence, and other such timeless quirks. This time, it’s just beefed up a little too much for the sake of summer cinema. They’re less brothers than bros this time, as evidenced by their love of Oakleys and bad hip-hop and puka shell necklaces. The sequel could very well be Frat Boy Ninja Turtles in 2017 at this rate (“Sick Hollister, Raph! Pizza! Pass the kush, Leo!”).
It feels so moot to even report on plot. Here, a real quick summary of how it happens this time, for the ten people that’ve never heard of the Turtles. A family of turtles born of genetic mutation are raised by their surrogate mutant rat father, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), to protect the city they live in. They wear colored masks, and wield weapons. There is a biological warfare threat in the form of the Foot Clan and Shredder.
A city being held ransom. Sinfully convenient origins connecting the Turtles to Shredder and their new friend, a red-headed reporter named April O’Neal (Megan Fox, not good at all). Blah blah blah screaming “cowabunga” on a rooftop during a final, incomprehensible battle! Family. Themes for kids. Paramount and Nickelodeon make glorious profit.
Pardon me if all that sounds glib, but if the movie isn’t going to try, why should this review? From a moviegoing standpoint, yes, this is very much a stupid actioner of our time. Ninja Turtles is an intellectual property on life support being shoved out for a desired $50 million+ opening weekend to help a studio’s bottom line. From an adaptation standpoint, over-narrativizing backstory does not a movie make – enough of this universe building crap. Ninja Turtles can’t even do that justice! If you’re going to franchise Turtles again, at least have the decency to tease Krang, or the Technodrome, or NOT Shredder for the nth time?* (*nerd alert)
The good stuff: the Turtles, however weird they may look, are diligently rendered by WETA Digital via motion capture, and the guys who play Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) are at least enthusiastic. They’re not interesting, or clever, or all that fun, but they do seemingly have their heads in the game. Next.
The great deal of bad stuff: We’ve gone from “bodacious” and “radical” and “excellent” to “we’re getting our asses handed to us!” and Victoria’s Secret ads passing as gags. Where’s the goofball sensibility? Where’s the amusement in seeing such an outlandish idea? Megan Fox, more or less in the lead role, can’t sell the premise to save her life (it’s a bummer of a mix: soggy writing and aimless acting). The CGI, while done with expected precision, make the Turtles look eerie and unacceptably phony. Sometimes, a rubber suit will do. The 3D does absolutely nothing, so don’t buy 3D tickets. The photography is in that bastard school of post-Bay-and-Abrams canted angles, lens flares, and contempt for tripods. And again, the Turtle brothers are now as angsty as all get out. Not in the fun and naïve teenager way, but the “I think I hate this smart-ass kid” way. The new Ninja Turtles is a cacophonous grind.
For comparison, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a plain cheese with a little pepperoni for flavor. The 2014 Ninja Turtles is that awful, excessive-looking Pizza Hut pizza with too many toppings and the “cheese”-filled crust nuggets that nobody really wanted.
You know what’s more fun? There was this bar, Replay, a few months ago, where me, my wife, her sister, and a friend teamed up to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game from 1989. No quarters necessary. It was a colorful beat ‘em up, and we dominated the thing in 20 minutes and may have even learned a lesson or two about teamwork! Find this bar! Compared to this film, that was radical, swift, and less pricey.