Thursday night, as I entered a sorta-sketchy Cleveland movie theatre about 500 miles from my Illinois home, I wondered what exactly I was getting myself into. Ten minutes before showtime, and with no pre-flight entertainment showing on the screen, there was just one other person in the place as the latest iteration of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES was about to light up the room. Much to my own delight, an audience of about 30 strong piled in just as the first of only a few trailers began playing, and we’d soon be experiencing the live-action opus that Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon had prepared for us… one that inspired my own #TMNTweek right here on THE ROCK FATHER. Much like this summer’s TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (which could take place in the same world), TMNT is a fun, yet flawed entry into a summer filled with big screen heroes…
Right out of the gate, I was ready to applaud director Jonathan Liebesman (WRATH OF THE TITANS) for getting the Turtles’ origin out of the way during the animated opening title sequence – a fantastic, ripped-from-the-comics display that got right into the meat of things before opening into the live-action world – but then we had to see what we were already shown in slower-paced live-action. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but filmmakers and studios need to get something very clear: STOP WITH THE ORIGIN STORIES. 90% of the audience going into a pop culture film like this knows the basic gist and wants to get right into the action, yet every new filmmaker to take on a property has to give us “their take” on what we’ve seen time and time again… SUPERMAN, BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES… the audience doesn’t need a new intro every time, especially when you have to change it – and that gets really confusing for people, yet it’s not surprising for this property, one that’s been changed constantly since nearly day one. Truth is, most of the audience has never seen one of the original, black-and-white comics that launched TMNT (I had a few that I sold for a good profit many years ago), and is more familiar with the cartoons of the 80s which were designed to sell toys. It was those cartoons that established the familiar mythos, which carried into the original live-action films, and has since been reworked for the forgettable 2007 CGI affair, and the current smash-hit cartoon on Nickelodeon. That new cartoon? That’s where the biggest problem lies for this movie… yet that doesn’t mean that the film is “a problem.”
Rated PG-13, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is a perfect treat for longtime fans that grew up with the ‘Turtles in their earlier versions and now have kids into the Nick series. But the kids… depending on their ages, might be best-suited to sit this one out. With amped-up violence and times of peril for the Turtles – including [SPOILER] perhaps the first-ever crying scene for one red-masked mutant, there’s some scenes that could be too much, and for that reason I’m hesitant to let my girls see it, despite my oldest being very much into the action figures. It’s a double-edged katana, much like those wielded by Leonardo. It’s drastically different than the cartoon (which we’re all digging), and I’m always a little weirded out by toys that are ages 4+ and the companion movies being 13+. So it really boils down to what you feel comfortable with as a parent for your own kids.
Personally, I thought it was in the right place in terms of what it should be for me as a viewer – the characters all had the right vibe, and the personalities were spot-on. The new look makes sense, and the flashbacks to Splinter raising the Turtles as his children were adorable. The product placement with Pizza Hut and Orange Crush really stuck out, and I’m pretty sure Microsoft ponied up some cash for Surface and Windows Phones to be used by the villains. In fact, Splinter practically becomes a Pizza Hut pitchman for a few, describing in ridiculously tantalizing detail the five-cheese pizza. Again, not surprising (Domino’s had a delivery driver in the 1990 TMNT picture), but it does slow the momentum for a moment.
Aside from some questions of my own parental guidance, at the end of the day, over-analyzing a film about giant talking turtles that live in the sewers beneath the streets of New York City is a tad weird in itself, much like when people go on and on with realism gripes about films based on toys that feature giant talking robots from outer space that turn into vehicles and animals. If you’re going into a film called TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, you want to see this rat-trained quartet taking on The Foot Clan, facing off against The Shredder, and in the end, saving the day. On those notes, NINJA TURTLES is a nunchuck-spinning, sai-wielding comic adventure that finds the 2014 Foot Clan armed like domestic terrorists (again, whatever you’re comfortable showing the kids) and led by The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), who in this story is sort of the Ra’s al Ghul to wicked businessman Eric Sacks (played by William Fichtner) as they plot a chemical attack on NYC for which they will have the only antidote – Mutagen (which “runs through the Turtles’ veins”) – and plan to sell to the U.S. government for a hefty ransom.
Megan Fox is a fine April O’Neil, yet she’s not given much to do here as an actual “reporter,” spending much of her time being ogled by cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) and berated by newsroom boss Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg), who comes off as a less-likable combination of SPIDER-MAN’s J. Jonah Jameson and SUPERMAN’s Perry White. There’s also a few interesting players in the supporting cast, with recent SNL cast members Abby Elliott and Taran Killam popping up, as does Toyota’s newest “Swagger Wagon” pitchman Chris Wylde for a one-liner.
Flawed but fun, hopefully TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES opens the door for a sequel that can finally propel the live-action Turtles into new territory, with some characters we haven’t already seen, a more original plot, and some better use of tools like the all-new “Turtle Assault Van” – which gets more screen-time in my YouTube highlight reel of the new action figures from Playmates Toys than in the actual movie. The biggest problem for 2014’s TMNT is figuring out which of it’s audiences it was seeking to serve, and in that it plays as very uneven.
THE ROCK FATHER Rating: 2.5/5 Stars