Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles review

The heroes in half shells finally make their way back to the big screen. Here's Matt's review...

Fluff news reporter April O’Neil is dead set on cracking the story of the mysterious Foot Clan, a criminal organisation stealing all sorts of strange stuff from around New York City, in hope of boosting her flailing career. She’s not the only one with an eye on the Foot, though. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, instructed to stay in their sewer home by their father Splinter, have been sneaking out at night to thwart Foot thefts. After April spots the Turtles her investigation into who they are and what they have to do with the Foot leads her to shady businessman Eric Sacks and Foot Clan leader Shredder. Soon, the Turtles and April are fighting for their lives, and to save NYC from the Foot’s nefarious plot.

There’s a feeling of getting away with something about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You don’t have to look particularly closely to find all sorts of signs of the film being pieced together on the fly. Plot holes abound (to the point where the story scarcely makes sense), supporting characters appear only to disappear and never be mentioned again, characters seem to reference cut scenes and one role looks to have been clumsily split into two late in the game. The motivation of the villains doesn’t work at all and there’s a failure to set-up characters arcs, meaning that at the end of the film a load of character pay offs fall completely flat.

So I could understand someone having a negative response to the film. If you were to draw up two lists, one of things it gets right and one of things it gets wrong, the wrong list is probably going to be longer. Yet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets by, for me, with an abundance of action, enthusiasm and humour.

The Turtles themselves work really well, and they are the heart of the film. We get a good take on Leonardo, voiced by Johnny Knoxville (it took me a moment to settle on Knoxville in the role, but the by the end of the film I was sold), which succeeds in making him a light, likeable leader rather than a rule-repeating come down, as in some previous versions. While Donatello doesn’t get much screen time, he does get some terrific character moments and the casting of Jeremy Howard is inspired. Raphael is the most awkward to look at of the four (with watermelons for shoulders), but the character plays as it should. The clear highlight is Michelangelo. I suspect someone has been watching the current Nickelodeon Turtles TV series, as this Mikey is so silly and funny (although one joke from the character early in the film is misses the mark by some distance and is uncomfortable and creepy).

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The Turtles’ reveal in this film is a doozy. That’s something the 90s movie got right, too. Visually, the Turtles are teased out, absent from the start of the movie and given a bold, dramatic entrance. While the new Turtles designs have been divisive (they even divided me, because I really like Donatello and Michelangelo while I’ve reservations over some details of Raphael and Leonardo), the execution of those designs is stunning. There’s also a new origin for the Turtles in this movie, inspired by the current comic book series. I think it’s effective, too; it makes sense in the context of what they’re doing and adds a link with April that is really quite sweet.

The best news for Turtles fans, though, is that the film is teeming with in-jokes and references to other versions of Turtles. One particular Shredder line prompted a massive guffaw from me, and will be a highlight for fans (although I got a few funny looks from others who didn’t have a clue what I was laughing at). The opening credits are amongst the best of the year, at least until the weird brick smashing bit, and will have special significance for fans as well.

It’d be hard not to feel sorry for William Fichtner, his character seemingly gutted as the film was reworked, if he didn’t look like he was having so much fun as duplicitous millionaire Eric Sacks. Fichtner excels at smug, while he sells his reaction to seeing the Turtles for the first time perfectly. Elsewhere, Megan Fox has been the target for much criticism for her role here, but I’d argue against that. For the light, comic tone they’re going for here, I think Fox measures her performance just about right. Any complaints you could aim at the character of April O’Neil would be better directed towards the script, which loses interest in the character. Will Arnett, meanwhile, steals almost every scene he is in with his slick but surprisingly likeable Vernon Fenwick.

Perhaps realising that their story wasn’t working, the Turtles team have utilised pace to good effect. After a slightly groggy 2nd quarter the film barrels along, remaining funny throughout, and at a slender 100 minutes it’s over before you know it. The short run time combined with the story problems create the effect of things feeling a bit slight, although I hope the lesson learned is that the story needs to be in place next time. More short blockbusters, please.

The film looks lovely; slickly photographed with calmly constructed action and fight sequences (at least after the Turtles have been revealed). It’s also great that the humour and the Turtles’ personalities never get lost in the big set pieces. A quick mention, too, to the brilliant score, courtesy of composer Brian Tyler, which conveys the big fun tone the film is working towards.

The problems present in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are really obvious, which I think makes it easy to overstate their impact. They might look weighty and significant, and they absolutely are detrimental, but I responded to the film anyway. It really is a lot of fun. That said, I would argue that it’s not as good as the underrated 90s movie, nor on par with the current Nickelodeon TV series or IDW comic books, and I really think there’s a much better film than this in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles source material.

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It’s not quite ‘Turtle-y Awesome’, then, as the posters says, but I would certainly say it was bossa nova, or even Chevy Nova. You know what? I’ll happily stretch to bodacious.

A note on the star rating – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film with two star construction, but I had a four star good time with it. So, meet in the middle for three stars, right? Well, I’m actually going to go another way with it and add them together. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – six stars! [Editor’s note – no, you’re not.]

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3 out of 5