No Ninja, No Ninja, No!
A Film Review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Make no mistake, fans of true “Turtle Power,” even though Michael Bay was merely the producer for this particular film adaptation, his imprint is all over this celluloid like crazy is on Casey Jones. As such, the viewer should expect a familiar bevy of calling cards such as plot holes, close-up action, hand-held camera work, blurry combat and Megan Fox. Those who grew up with TMNT are adults now and may be disappointed in this reboot because it reworks the origin story, significantly alters the size and look of the turtles, does the same for the Shredder and turns the foot clan into a gang of Call of Duty terrorists with ski masks. But this film was not made for us. It was strictly made for our children, or rather, children under 10 who have mild to severe cases of ADHD. Despite the PG-13 rating, even teenagers would look at this film and regard it as too childish for even them and tossing in a few “adult words” here and there doesn’t (ahem) transform its juvenile nature.
The only entertainment value of this film was watching all these pint-sized-Turtle-wannabes in the theatre performing air jiujutsu on their friends, brothers and sisters before and after the movie played. The rapid fire pace of this film and complete disregard for character development to accommodate fart jokes drew the kiddies in, and I’m happy they enjoyed it. Parents, however, won’t even be allowed to fall asleep to this eye-rolling affair due to their child bouncing around in their seat and/or pestering them to buy Turtle action figures after the movie and/or telling you about all the characters from the TV show and/or yelling back at the movie screen to participate with the dialogue thanks to the sugar high of popcorn and Mountain Dew. Parents, you have been forewarned. No rational person would disapprove of bringing ear plugs and a sleep mask to this one.
For those of you willing to face the fire of mediocrity head on, get ready for a story that makes the original live action film of 1990 look like Gone with the Wind in comparison. One of the things that make TMNT unique as a brand has more to do with the “T” than the “MNT.” The teenage segment of growth continues to be a delicate and volatile time of uncertainty and empowerment in any young person’s life. The Turtles have always displayed growing pains in every previous depiction of their fiction as well as the concept of family being a stabilizing influence. This movie features none of that. Why? Well, the short answer is “Michael Bay,” but a more thoughtful one is the fact that this film is dedicated to showing off these giant, ninja, mutants performing feats of physical impossibility with the kind of proficiency that only the best CG animators can fabricate.
Another thing that’s missing in this film is any semblance of character development. There are no campfire scenes that reestablish the Turtles’ relationships to each other: no “Ralph annoying Leo” moments, no “Donny educating Mikey” pauses. There is literally one scene of Splinter being a sensei and another moment (the best in the entire film) in an elevator demonstrating brotherhood. Every other segment of dialogue is either too subtle where only fans would appreciate or is generic and derivative to simply move the plot along. Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty presume a healthy familiarity with this franchise from the audience in order to free up as much screen time for action sequences. This is a shame because these Turtles are very different from the original animated series, the original live action films and the original comic books. I don’t have much tolerance for reboots in general, but even less for a reboot that can’t be bothered with putting any time into actually identifying what makes this new version of an established fiction different from the rest. I didn’t even care that the origin story was retooled for the sake of convenience, but at least take a time out from sliding down giant snow mountains (during the first week of spring?) to make any of it matter.
As I’ve said before, the action is prevalent in this film. But how pretty is that action? Well, it’s Transformers pretty which means that the frame rate and camera angles reveal enough to communicate the general idea of the action, but slams the door shut on detail. Once again, Michael Bay’s influence over director Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans  Battle: LA ) is apparent. 90% of the action featured in this film is CG, green screen, wizardry which may or may not bother some in the audience due to its seizure-inducing pace, but the fact is that intense action from CG characters doesn’t HAVE to be displayed in that manner. Sure, quick cuts to and from obscure angles and a shaky frame are classic filmmaking tricks to up the emotional intensity of a scene, but where’s the payoff when nobody realizes what exactly happened just then? I guess the audience can thank Liebsman’s or Bay’s use of slow motion to hammer home isolated “cool” moments like the Turtles being bullet proof. (The Turtles are bullet proof?!?) Long story short is if you’ve seen any of Bay’s Transformer films, all the action in TMNT (2014) will look the same. Also, there’s no real karate being shown throughout.
The digital redesigns for every CG character in this film from previous interpretations of any medium is a significant point of criticism for this film. The aesthetics of the look are immaterial if the design serves the story or characters in a direct way. All the Turtles are mammoth, ugly and look more like Orcs from World of Warcraft than actual turtles of any variety (mutated or otherwise). Making them look uglier helps in emphasizing the “mutant” angle which plays into their separation from human society which they adore, but their scale doesn’t make much sense if they were trained as ninjas and not meant to be seen in a combat situation. The only environment where the Turtles would be less conspicuous above ground would be at a WWE event. Splinter’s redesign was clearly going for a more stereotypical Fu Man Chu appeal that isn’t as old and weathered as he’s usually depicted. His stature scaled up with his Turtle sons which led to some fairly satisfying combat moments showing off his rat-kung-fu as a force to be reckoned with. Shredder is now apparently Iron Man, but instead of guns, he’s got blades. I felt this was the worst of all the digital redesigns. I fully understand they had to build this menacing exo-suit to match up with the enlarged stature of the Turtles, but the sheer number of blades this suit could produce was just Looney Tunes comical.
Other than the aforementioned “elevator scene” there isn’t one single performance from any CG character in this film that is noteworthy. They are all as plastic as every scene featuring Mannequin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels. One significant reason for this is that the Turtles rarely share any dialogue scenes with live actors in the same frame. These moments are always displayed with matching shots of high and low angles to differentiate the perspective of ogre Turtles and regular humans. This makes it difficult for the audience to identify with any of the Turtles as inpiduals and the fact that they have no pertinent interaction with each other doesn’t help things either.
Human performances were equally irrelevant and apparently mailed-in. What the hell is Whoopi Goldberg doing in this picture? Oh I know; it’s a paycheck film. Can you believe she actually won an Academy Award for Ghost (1991)? Well you won’t after seeing her contributions here. Will Arnett plays Vernon, a camera man for the news who seems to have a penchant for behaving like Will Arnett, which is convenient because the casting director happened to cast that actor in this role; and nobody cares. My boy William Fichtner (Eric Sacs) from Cheektowaga represents WNY well with a tenured career as an excellent character actor in Hollywood, but this film is not a bullet point on his resume. If you ever needed confirmation that Megan Fox is the worst actress on the planet, watch this movie. I really can’t say much more other than her performance was an awkward train wreck; as per usual.
TMNT (2014) is an unquestioned pass. See it if someone else is treating. See it if a theatre is giving free showings because it’s going out of business. See it on demand two months from now because it’s that awful, will be pulled from theatres soon and will be on retail shelves in time for Christmas. But don’t pay real money from your wallet for this nonsense. If you have a Ninja Turtle fever, then the only prescription is watching the original 1990 film or the original animated series.