I decided to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles today. My expectations were very low because it hasn’t received very good reviews and it is produced by Michael Bay who, in my opinion, delivered progressively worse Transformers films. I was concerned the mythology could significantly differ and that it would be dumb. Were those fears justifed? Read on for my spoiler-free review (I will discuss some characters and tone, but no plot points or gags). But if you want the super-quick version? I’d give it a “C.” I’d give TMNT III a “D-” if that context helps at all.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
April O’Neil is a New York City reporter covering fluffy human interest pieces and longs to cover hard news. She investigates a known terrorist group, the Foot Clan, which leads to her meeting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The turtles are mutant ninjas, like their name implies. They have been trained by their adoptive father, a rat named Splinter, to fight the Foot and defend New York. Ultimately, they do just that.
WHO ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS?
The main character is April O’Neil (Megan Fox). She has the clearest arc, if you can call it that. She wants to become a “real” reporter and gets her wish, only to find herself in crazy danger. The turtles don’t show up for about 15 minutes or so, but once they do, they sort of derail her story and become the focus. But they really don’t go through a big change. They’ve been sneaking out to fight the Foot so they know about the outside world. No one else really learns about them except for April’s cameraman/friend/sidekick Vern, played by Will Arnett. The Shredder is in the movie but we don’t really get to know him. Karai is his lieutenant, but there is no mention of any sort of family relationship. William Fichtner has a large role as sleazy businessman/scientist Eric Sachs, who used to work with April’s father, also a scientist, to develop mutagen. Well, technically they were developing a cure for a weaponized disease that hadn’t been invented yet. It has the side effect of mutating a rat and 4 turtles, whom April named. So it’s a bit like the current continuity in the IDW comic book series that started in 2012 when Nickelodeon took ownership of TMNT.
It’s… not as bad as you might expect? It’s not groundbreaking in any way. But it also wasn’t wall to wall groaners or a story with origins that felt completely different. April is a reporter like in the original cartoon and live action films. Her father is a scientist like in the current cartoon. Shredder and Karai lead the Foot clan like every iteration of TMNT. Splinter and the Turtles were all mutated by mutagen and are father and sons and become ninjas. They live in New York City. The action scenes are pretty well done for what they are and the turtles move and act convincingly. Motion capture has come a long way. The Turtles each have clear personalities and the focus stays on them instead of building up a villain half the time. And the movie moves quickly and is done in just over an hour and a half so it isn’t an overlong slog like the Transformers films. Megan Fox gets to keep her clothes on and isn’t sexualized as much as in Transformers. As much.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before as far as the story goes. Villain has a plan to endanger the city for extortion purposes. The Shredder has been turned into an Iron Man-suited supervillain. That isn’t the worst, but combined with the Turtles’ hulking physiques, the action is slightly more brawling with acrobatics than martial arts. Splinter learns ninjitsu from a book in this version. A book. The Turtles and Splinter being named by April doesn’t really lead to anything so it seems like a contrivance without a big payoff. In fact, that’s mostly the problem with this film. It doesn’t properly set up or pay off any of its story beats. The theme is family and specifically fathers and children. But none of the relationships are established strongly enough for it to resonate as strongly as it should. The Turtles themselves have designs that are okay in motion but are still not an improvement on what we are used to. The nostrils look the worst on Michelangelo, who looks like Shrek, and least bad on Raphael, who has a more subtle beak. Raphael comes off the best. He’s the only one played by an actor who has really done anything (Alan Ritchson from Blue Mountain State, Hunger Games 2 and I think he was Aquaman on Smallville). Donatello and Michelangelo come off the worst. The former is an uber-nerd with ridiculously high-tech gadgets that somehow never get damaged in their fights and the latter is super immature and kind of annoying. He has a crush on April that comes off as more creepy than anything else. For some reason, Johnny Knoxville is the voice of Leonardo. It didn’t distract me but it added nothing. Will Arnett’s Vern is ostensibly there for comic relief but he doesn’t have any great one-liners. Mostly he just suffers. I might still peg him as the most likable character.
If you’re a fan of TMNT, it’s at least worth a rental. Maybe a matinee if you understand that this is nothing special. But if you’re not a fan, I think this is unlikely to convert you. At first I was glad the Turtles didn’t just pop up right away and they built some suspense. But eventually, I just wanted them to show up already. They show up a bit too late but we’ve been with April so long, she’s the character we’re most invested with and her character arc devolves into “I got to meet the Turtles.” It could have been much, much worse. But that doesn’t make it “good.”