Megan Fox - April O'Neil
Will Arnett - Vern Fenrick
William Fichtner - Eric Sacks
Alan Ritchson - Raphael
Noel Fisher - Michelangelo
Pete Ploszek/Johnny Knoxville - Leonardo
Jeremy Howard - Donatello
Danny Woodburn/Tony Shalhoub - Splinter
Tohoru Masamune - Shredder
Whoopi Goldberg - Bernadette Thompson
Minae Noji - Karai
Genre - Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Martial Arts/Comic Books
Running Time - 101 Minutes
It's mind boggling to realize that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around for 31 years now. What started out as an underground comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird would become such a phenomenon for three decades now. Successful multiple cartoon series, toys and merchandising, and even films of various quality have managed to ingrain these characters into the pop culture lexicon.
It was no surprise that someone would come along to reboot a new live-action film for the franchise after TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III in 1993. When it was revealed that "beloved director" Michael Bay would produce a new adaptation under his Platinum Dunes company, boy did the you-know-what hit the fan. It also didn't help when he hired Jonathan Liebesman to direct - the man who brought us DARKNESS FALLS, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, as well as BATTLE LOS ANGELES and WRATH OF THE TITANS. Then we heard stories that the Turtles weren't going to be mutants at all, but aliens. We also heard that Shredder would be Caucasian instead of Japanese. The casting of Megan Fox as April O'Neil and weird looking CGI Turtles [that looked realistic, mind you] didn't help things either. People had already bashed the film months before the film was released last August. It didn't really matter though, since 2014's TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES made a good amount of money worldwide, securing an eventual sequel in 2016.
The real question is - is this new version of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES as bad as many say? It ended up on multiple Worst of 2014 lists, with critics thinking it was an insult to the original concept and calling it "brainless" and a "waste of mutagen". And although there are some who enjoyed the film, they were pretty much in the minority from what I gathered. I will admit - the negative reviews did scare me away a bit from watching this in theaters. I didn't want that feeling of negativity cloud my judgment of the film, in case it was a good one. So I waited until it hit home video to check it out. And after finally sitting down to judge the film for myself, I can see both sides of the coin. It's not the worst TURTLES film ever. That still belongs to III. But as an origin story to a new adaptation of the characters, there was a whole lot to be desired for me to really like it.
The Foot Clan is terrorizing New York City. Channel 6 News Reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) is tired of fluff pieces and wants to get the lead on this current crime wave. While investigating the Foot, she encounters them fighting off huge mysterious figures whom she believes are vigilantes. However, this idea makes her the laughing stock at her job.
April eventually follows another lead, causing her to be a hostage of the Foot in a subway station. However, she's saved by her mysterious vigilantes - who just happen to be six feet tall Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When they reveal their names and take her to their sensei, Splinter, April realizes these giant animals were her pets fifteen years prior - given life by a mutagen her father and Dr. Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) had created. When Sachs learns about his experiments being a success, he contacts the Foot Clan's leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Shredder, wanting to control NYC and the rest of the world, wants to release this mutagen throughout the city to make Sachs look like a hero when he saves them with an antidote [for financial reasons, of course]. Unfortunately, the Ninja Turtles aren't pleased by this and decide to fight back.
Good Things: I think the best thing TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES has going for it is the visual presentation. I honestly never thought Jonathan Liebesman was a bad director. He just worked on films that relied on style over substance. TURTLES is one of those films, as there isn't really much to say about the narrative. But looking at the film is great eye candy. And I think Liebesman eye for the material elevates this film to a higher degree than it probably deserves.
I thought the film was well-paced, nicely framed, and even edited well. It never felt longer than the running time, thanks to great action sequences were a lot of fun to watch. The snow mountain sequence [although the geography was a bit iffy - that close to a warmer New York City?] was the highlight for me. It's just over-the-top silliness that kept be mesmerized from beginning to end. And while the final act harkened a bit too much to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN than necessary - hell, it looked almost shot-for-shot at times - I thought the Turtles vs. Shredder was some cool stuff. I just wish there was more of it. But the visuals are pretty damn neat here.
As for the CGI, it's fantastic. Yes, I would prefer the Jim Henson automatons over any computer generation Ninja Turtles. But damn, the effects were so good, you'd actually believe these mutant characters were really there interacting with the human characters. Yes, the Turtles look a bit strange with their snouts at first. But after a while, I sort of forgot about that and just went along with their new looks. I thought the Turtles looked badass! And Splinter looked cool too. As for Shredder, I loved the nod to his look from the 2003 cartoon series. The villain has never looked better on screen. The motion capture for the CGI characters was close to perfect, and I thought the actors standing in for the characters delivered a ton of personality and amusement. They acted and spoke like what the Ninja Turtles should [although listening to Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo was a bit strange at times]. I appreciated that, as it helped soften the blow to other things I had major issues with.
And I might get hate for this, but I didn't think Megan Fox was that bad as April O'Neil. She's definitely not the best actress in the world, and not my choice to play the character in any adaptation. But for the first time, Megan Fox felt alive on-screen. She's usually in films as eye candy, usually staring blankly while her body does all the talking. Here, you can tell she's excited to be in this film and seems motivated in giving a decent performance for once. It doesn't surprise me, since Fox has claimed multiple times about her obsession with the franchise and how much she loves the Ninja Turtles. She's not the best live-action April O'Neil [my vote still goes to Judith Hoag], but I thought she was very likeable in the role and was a pleasant surprise overall.
And while I had major issues with the film's narrative, I will say that it works just fine for this film and its target audience. It's cliche and recently been done in other comic book origin stories, but kids and teens will probably eat it up since it's simple to follow and to the point. I'm not a fan of the changes to the origin story, but I can respect the screenwriters for wanting to take the franchise into a different direction to separate itself from what's been previously done. It's not for me personally, but I can see why it appealed to so many others since its release.
Bad Things: Like I mentioned earlier, the film's narrative really bugged me. I honestly couldn't feel a connection to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES because of the changes made to the established story. I respect something different in a new adaptation. But when the changes made subtract to what made the franchise so great to begin with, I begin to have issues with what's done.
It really all starts from the origin story. In the original comics, we all know that the franchise is based around the personal hatred between Splinter and Shredder. Splinter watched Shredder murder his Master Yoshi as a pre-mutated rat, with Shredder scratching Shredder's face in revenge. There was a personal vendetta between the two parties, which would later add the Turtles, who were Splinter's "sons" and would do anything to protect their "father". April O'Neil was their human guide as the Turtles couldn't be out in public without people freaking out, and because that's not the Ninja way either. You felt connected to everything because you understood both the hero and villain side to things, and where all the supporting characters fit in.
Unfortunately, there's no personal connection in this film at all. The story is not about Splinter and Shredder anymore. It's about April and scientist Eric Sachs, who worked with April's father and may have led to Mr. O'Neil's death. The Turtles and Splinter were April's pets in the laboratory, where they were experiments for the mutagen that made them who they are today. Shredder was a mentor to Sachs in Japan, and Sachs wants to return the favor to Shredder by helping him take over New York City for financial reasons. It feels like I'm watching THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with Peter Parker being connected to everything through his own father, who is connected to Norman Osborn, who is connected to Oscorp, who is connected to all the villains Spider-Man has to face eventually. Make changes to the story all you want, as long as it allows the audience to become invested in it. At least when it happened in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, the main character was still the focus. Here, it's April who seems to be the main character, with the Turtles being supporting characters in their own movie. If April was a more fleshed out character, which she isn't, it would be okay. It's a shame, because there was nothing wrong with the original origin and it allowed the focus to be where it was supposed to be - on the Turtles, Splinter, and Shredder. Instead, I'm watching the April and Sachs Show - not as interesting.
Speaking of Shredder, what a waste he was here. He looks great and fights like a bad-ass. But he has no personality here and seems more like a henchman to Sachs rather than some crime lord wanting to take over NYC. It's a shame because Shredder is a cool villain with a lot to offer in a Turtles story, as we've seen countless times before. He was just there for me, and Shredder should never be just there in any film with the words NINJA TURTLES in it. At least in the sequel, Shredder will now have a justified personal vendetta against the heroes, which could make the second part of this reboot a much better viewing experience. So maybe everyone involved just wanted to get the set up out of the way in order to tell more fulfilling stories in the next couple of installments. The problem is that you need to make the first part of your story feel just as fulfilling. There's a ton of potential, but we can't really judge and live on potential.
As for the actors besides the motion-capture performers and Megan Fox, they display really uninspiring performances. Will Arnett tries as Vernon, but he didn't do much for me as the comic relief who has a crush on April. Honestly, he came across more creepy than anything. I don't blame Arnett for that. I blame the material really. William Fichtner can play the bad guy role in his sleep, but he didn't do much for me either as Eric Sachs. I appreciate that he played it subtle rather than over-the-top, but it felt bland to me. And Whoopi Goldberg didn't add anything as April's boss. At least she got a good check out of it. And Tohoru Masamune underperformed as Shredder. Then again, he doesn't get much to do outside of action sequences. Hopefully a better script in the second installment will allow these actors to do more and give memorable performances.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE LEARNING NINJITSU FROM A BOOK
- Instead of hard hitting news like the rise of the Foot Clan, April O'Neil is stuck bouncing on a trampoline with a fitness instructor for a news segment. At least Channel 6 News realizes what her best assets are! ...In journalism, that is.
- After seeing the Foot Clan stopped by a vigilante, April sees this as her new story, as she's tired of "froth and foam". Well you had to get your job somehow, April!
- Bernadette doesn't believe April's stones about the Turtles, finding it crazy and hilarious. This is the same lady who encountered aliens on the Enterprise, spoke with Patrick Swayze's ghost, survived both Rosie O'Donnell and Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and dated a black face Ted Danson. Fuck off, Whoopi!
- The Ninja Turtles are fans of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl". I thought I was supposed to like the heroes of the story? Total B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
- The Turtles enjoy creating their own music while riding in an elevator. Kenny G is suddenly in the mood for some turtle soup...
THE FINAL HOWL
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES was a middle-of-the-road film for me. I thought the film had great visual presence, the motion capture and CGI were done really well, and I didn't mind Megan Fox here too much like I was expecting to. And while the changes in the origin may work for this version of the film, I didn't quite feel a strong connection to it like I did for the original Splinter vs. Shredder origin that most people know and understand. The narrative really bogged down the experience for me due to how cliche and dumbed down it was. And some of the acting and use of characters [especially Shredder] felt uninspired. While I can understand the hate for it, I still thought it was way better than TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III from 1993. But unfortunately, it didn't leave me shell-shocked either.