There’s good news and bad news for TMNT fans. The good news is that the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie bears no relation to the leaked screenplay draft that set the Internet on fire several years ago with its talk of other-dimensional Turtles and other assorted nonsense. The heroes in a half shell look (mostly) like they should, their origins are intact, and they behave exactly as expected. The bad news is that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the crowded summer movie pack. That doesn’t mean you should give up all hope, though.
Is it even necessary to detail the plot of a Ninja Turtles movie? A crime wave has hit New York City courtesy of the Foot and their armored leader, the Shredder. Only four giant turtles and their rat sensei stand between NYC and total lawlessness. You’re now caught up in suitably non-spoiler-y fashion and have a general idea of how most iterations of the franchise kick off. Now onto the rest.
I’ll start with the good stuff. The main attraction, the Turtles themselves, are remarkably well-realized creations. While I’m not sold on some of the overly anthropomorphized design choices (the off-putting lips/nostrils on their faces, for example), the actual performances are quite good, endearing, and often genuinely funny (especially Noel Fisher’s Michelangelo). I rather like their distinct garb and accessories, although the decision to make them nearly seven feet tall with builds that would terrify linebackers does take away some of that underdog angle which I always felt was a key component of their initial appeal.
The boys all behave perfectly in character, and their personalities are more distinctly developed than in perhaps any other adaptation of the franchise we’ve seen. If there is one truly perfect scene in this movie, it’s a quiet moment with the Turtles in an elevator that leads to a well-earned laugh seconds before they leap into battle. In that minute or two you’ll witness all the wonderful potential these CGI creations had, but then it’s right back to a fairly standard summer movie climax atop a New York City skyscraper, packed to the gills with the expected headache-inducing visuals. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it would have been nice if more time was spent on establishing their brotherly relationships and giving us a little more light humor. There still would have been plenty of action to go around.
While it’s a huge plus that the titular Turtles are good fun throughout, it’s not quite enough to make up for the movie’s shortcomings, even for this hard-shelled fan. Jonathan Liebesman imbues the film with enough shaky-cam and fast-cutting to make even the most serious lover of movies like this (surely they must exist) tap out. If nothing else, though, the movie avoids the impossibly extended, mind-numbing, often deafening excesses of a certain other toy-based summer franchise, and clocks in at a mere one hour and forty minutes, which feels mercifully short after Transformers 4.
Despite that comparatively brief running time, the first half (or more) of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is so bogged down by exposition that otherwise short scenes drag interminably. The movie opens with an animated segment that faintly recalls the original Eastman and Laird comics, with a Splinter voiceover setting the stage. It’s attractive enough, but then we spend nearly the next hour with major and minor characters explaining various plot points or bits of backstory to each other. At least twice, April thinks out loud to nobody in particular in order to get something across, and while it’s ultimately played for some light comedy (that may or may not draw a chuckle), it’s insultingly lazy stuff.
The action sequences, of which there are many, are inconsistent. It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the actual actors and scenery end and the Turtles begin, although some of this may be the result of a completely undistinguished 3D conversion. Fights between the Turtles, Splinter, and the Shredder (the latter two being less convincing creations than the green fellas) often come across looking like video game cutscenes, although the Turtles do have some unique fighting styles and use their weapons in plenty of clever, non-lethal ways, particularly during an extended chase down the side of a mountain.
The human cast do their best with what they’re given, particularly Will Arnett, who manages to find a spark of life in a character like Vernon Fenwick, April’s cameraman who has a crush on the younger reporter. Megan Fox’s April O’Neil isn’t going to change any minds, but it’s nice to see that April is given a hint of agency, even if her quest to become a “serious reporter” is quickly sidelined, and we were never really given any indication that she was a particularly great reporter waiting to blossom in the first place. William Fichtner underplays the villainous Eric Sachs, which is a damn good thing considering some of the dialogue he’s saddled with was clearly written with gleeful hand-rubbing and cackling in mind. He also gets the most hilariously inept “pillar of the community is, of course, the bad guy” introduction in recent memory.
If you aren’t already taken in by nostalgia, there probably isn’t all that much here that will appeal to you, despite the impressive CGI Turtles and some laughs. But as a big, dopey kids’ popcorn flick, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets the job done just fine. Most of the violence is sanitized, there’s little in the way of adult language or themes, and the humor is pretty broad and safe.
And if you’re an aging Turtle fan worried that this would be some drastic reimagining of the Turtle legend replete with buzzwords like “gritty” or “edgy,” you can check this out, secure in the knowledge that the dudes are recognizably their radical selves.
Den of Geek is hosting a screening of the original live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie later this month. Check out the details here.