WRITTEN REVIEW – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman
Written by: Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec & Evan Daugherty
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville
Music: Brian Tyler
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: October 24th 2014

In the 1980s and the 1990s, independent movie distributor New Line Cinema paved the way for low-budget productions by financing and backing movies such as ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and later instalments of the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ franchise and the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise. One of their most successful independent endeavours was the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ trilogy in the 90s, which started strongly but died a slow and painful death due to diminishing quality and financial returns. But New Line Cinema were renowned for their creativity and ingenuity within the independent filmmaking industry and they have a legacy of some of the most iconic films of all time.

Now, in the 2000s, we have Platinum Dunes, a branch of Paramount Pictures which mines the ingenuity found in franchises such as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (with their remake in 2003 and their prequel in 2006), ‘Friday the 13th’ (remade in 2009) and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ (butchered in 2010). Now with their brand new adaptation of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ I can’t find a more fitting representation for the nostalgia-crushing disregard for film as the New Line Cinema and Platinum Dunes comparison. It is with the company’s terrible back-catalogue of reboots and remakes that I went into ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ expecting the worst and while it’s not the toxic spill that I feared it would be, it’s still far from a good movie.

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The plot follows April O’Neill (played by a spectacularly bored-looking Megan Fox) who aspires to be taken seriously as a journalist at Channel 6 News. She finds her big scoop when she discovers that the local terrorist organisation known as “The Foot Clan” are meeting resistance from a group of vigilante crime fighters. April discovers that these four crime-fighters are giant mutated turtles named after renaissance painters; Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, who have been trained in the art of ninjitsu by their adoptive father; an oversized rat named Splinter.

Boy, when you lay out the premise of this material it REALLY sounds strange.

Throw in some convoluted backstory about April’s father being responsible for the turtle’s and Splinter’s mutation along with businessman Eric Sacks concocting a plan that doesn’t even begin to make sense with his leader; the ruthless Shredder.

Re-imagining a well-known origin story isn’t an inherently bad thing. Taking a character’s established beginnings and twisting it or moulding it into something slightly different is not, in itself, a bad approach. But the new origins presented in this poorly constructed reboot adds nothing new to the proceedings and make what should be a simple good vs. evil dynamic that’s enjoyable and engaging to its younger audience members feel uselessly convoluted. Sometimes in a narrative, simplicity IS complexity. Sometimes a simple set-up can free up the runtime of a movie to really explore the character relationships and the dynamics of the cast, but in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ there simply isn’t the time for that. If the turtles aren’t engaged in combat, either they or the drab human characters are talking about the plot. It’s fighting, talking, fighting, talking, fighting, talking.

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There are a few moments of well-handled character beats such as Raphael’s reaction to surviving the footclan’s assault on their underground home and finding Splinter beaten to near-death after his encounter with the Shredder, but as soon the emotions start, April interrupts the moment so the story can move forward. There’s no time for character-building or relationships when there’s so much stupid plot to get through. And with the plot’s baffling similarities to Sony’s incredible mishandling of the Spider-Man franchise in their rebooted series; a conspiracy about the main character’s father, a big box of vital plot information in the main character’s cupboard, magic blood, a plot to unleash a toxin to the city at the top of a New York skyscraper etc. that it feels like a mad-libs of superhero plots as opposed to a story that truly utilises the source material. Replace the four turtles with any other superhero group and it wouldn’t change the plot of the movie in any way.

April’s father being responsible for the Turtle’s creation doesn’t add anything to the story making it an egregious waste of the viewer’s time and April’s story-arc of her wanting legitimacy in the field of journalism doesn’t hold any weight, especially when it seems like the movie isn’t on her side. April pleads with her co-worker Vern (played by Will Arnett who looks embarrassed to be here) to help her be taken seriously and how she hates being degraded by doing trampoline exercises on camera to bounce for the viewer’s enjoyment.

Even though the movie will still show Megan Fox bouncing on the trampoline for the viewer’s enjoyment.

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And the sub-plot about her father doesn’t even work within the already hampered script as she wants to get revenge for her father’s death which was caused by a lab fire to destroy his experiments…which was started by April’s father himself…while himself and April were still INSIDE THE LABORATORY! Father of the year, ladies and gentlemen.

As for the villains, the reshoots done to recast the Shredder are very apparent. You can practically see the duct tape on the film where scenes have been patched in to put someone other than William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks into the Shredder suit (which, incidentally, looks like what would happen if the Transformer Megatron passed a painful kidney stone). William Fichtner is serviceable as Sacks but he definitely sells the supportive-mentor role to April in the first act of the movie better than the insane villain he becomes later on.

Because you WOULD have to be insane to think that their villainous plan to poison New York City with a toxic gas (in broad daylight, on the top of very high-profile building in Times Square) then sell the government the cure to the poison that YOU helped to create would actually work. But you then put your plan into motion and start activating the machine to poison the Big Apple before you’ve even secured the cure from the Turtles magic blood (see also; ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ for the stupid “magic blood” McGuffin).

James Avery’s Shredder from the 1980s cartoon series might not have been the most threatening villain of all time. But even HE wasn’t this boneheaded!

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The personality of the four turtles (realised in this movie through motion capture performances) are on display to varying degrees of success. Leonardo is the leader of the group, but he’s so generic as to have no defining traits as a character. Raphael does go through some form of an arc in which he needs to accept that working as a team and respecting his brothers is the way to succeed. It’s just a shame that he seems to go through this change off-screen. Donatello (my personal favourite turtle of the franchise) is reduced to a Steve Urkel-style cliché and Michelangelo…

Let’s talk about Michelangelo for a minute.

I have a love/hate relationship with this turtle in the movie. His vocal performance by Noel Fisher is spot-on and he gets a lot of laughs (his “sleepwalking” gag actually made me laugh out loud) but on the other side of the spectrum there are many scenes where watching him interact with April O’Neil is amazingly uncomfortable as his new character-gimmick in this movie is that he’s in love with her. The way the “romance” plays out is just…urgh.

In the new Nickelodeon cartoon, Donatello has a crush on a teenage April O’Neil but it actually works there. Not just because of the fact that they are both 3D-animated cartoon characters so the visual abstraction makes the inter-species aspect not as prominent in the forefront of the viewer’s mind, but because Donatello has a shyness and modest attitude about himself. Michelangelo’s approach to romance in this movie is like watching an obnoxious frat boy. Maybe it’s true to the character, but it’s not something that’s enjoyable to see play out.

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Splinter is the mentor character; nothing more, nothing less. Although in this new origin story, he teaches his children the art of Ninjitsu because he finds a book on the subject in the sewers.

Three people wrote this screenplay.

Despite the last dozen paragraphs of condemnation, I don’t think ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ is completely without merit. There were a few chuckle-worthy jokes, some decent shots even though director Jonathan Liebesman relies on 360 shots and long-takes to a relentlessly distracting degree. If you know anything about Liebesman’s prior works such as ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ and ‘Wrath of the Titans’ you’ll know that these type of compositions are counter-intuitive to how he normally shoots his movies. I don’t doubt that Liebesman is technically capable, but in terms of their usage, meaning and context, he doesn’t quite know what to do with the camera during those over-extended shots.

The score by Brian Tyler is decent, but utterly generic. You could put the instrumentation behind almost any other superhero action movie and it’d still fit. It doesn’t feel very TMNT with a heavy emphasis on horns and a choir, for some reason.

There are many moments in the movie that indicate how shoddily put together it was behind the scenes indicating that despite the high-budget, it was incredibly rushed and haphazardly filmed (which has become a stable of movies that Michael Bay is associated with). There’s a scene early on where April O’Neil is using her camera-phone to take a picture of symbols painted on the side of a shipping container, but if you look at the phone screen you can see that she’s using the front camera as her face is taking up the phone screen…despite her taking pictures of the symbols in front of her. Another example (which you can actually see in the movie’s second trailer) has April observing the four turtles at the top of a ladder at the side of a building. In one shot, she’s on top of the ladder with no problems, but in the next show when one of the turtles lassos her with a chain, the ladder has detached from the building as if she’s about to fall.

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It looks like a sequence has been edited out the movie, but no one bothered to fix it after the fact to make the transition work. These may seem like nitpicks, which they are, but over time they really do add up making ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ feel like a production patch-job without much thought or planning, including Eric Sacks doing a “I killed your father”reveal  in the finale…even though everyone already knows what happened so it doesn’t work as a twist.

For a movie that costs around $120 million, that’s inexcusable.

The action scenes are almost a saving grace for the movie as they’re well choreographed, entertaining and for the most part you can tell where everyone is and what they’re doing in that particular shot. The film-makers really get some inventive use out of Splinter’s tail, Donatello gets a few great moments showing off his newly redesigned bō staff and despite the Shredder looking a piece of concept art that the artist started drawing and never quite stopped, he is an intimidating villain mainly because of how effectively and efficiently he fights.

But the real stand-out sequence is the snowy mountain chase. The Turtles are in a race against time to get to back to New York from Eric Sack’s mansion which is at the top of a mountain (is there a snow-capped mountain within walking distance of New York?). They have to escort April and Vern who are driving a large truck down the slope while also defending them from heavily armoured footclan soldiers.

And it is, without hyperbole, one of the best action sequences I’ve seen all year.

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The sound design team are firing on all cylinders, the slow-motion is implemented at just the right moments, each of the four turtle’s personalities are on full display, you get the sense that as the situation escalates and changes and evolves that those participating in the fight are thinking on their feet and adapting to the ever-changing scenario, the choreography is inventive and full of life and the camera bobs and weaves between the trees and the vehicles like an absolute dream. It’s a phenomenal sequence. It felt like something fresh, new and inventive in the franchise as you don’t often see the turtles fighting outside of an urban environment, let alone on the side of a mountain.

Unfortunately, it’s really the only sequence of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ that feels inventive and new. The Platinum Dunes remake isn’t the worst iteration of the property, I mean how can it be whilst ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III’, ‘Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation’ or ‘Coming Out of Their Shells’ tour still exist? But it’s still lacking the ingenuity and spirit that birthed the franchise and propelled it into popularity during the 80s and 90s.

In Conclusion: There are moments of promise here, but a drab human cast, the terrible plot that adds nothing substantial to the material and the mishandled script prevents it from working in any way close to a whole. Stick to the new Nickelodeon cartoon. You’ll have a much better time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ gets 1 and a half stars out of 5.

Posted In: 2014 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 30th Oct 14