The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were ridiculous back in the ’80s, but somehow they worked. This 2014 edition acknowledges the tackiness of the concept with a combination of nostalgia and self-deprecating humor – but the fact is that it’s still ridiculous, only now it lacks the freshness, originality, and pop culture value that spurred its decades-old success. Subjecting kids to these characters today is like transplanting an organ with the wrong blood type: It’s going to be rejected.
The turtles of 2014 are discovered by ambitious reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) when they set out to stop the evil Foot Clan, headed by the evil Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Shredder is in cahoots with millionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who is also evil. Once Sacks learns that the Turtles exist, he intends to drain their blood to obtain a “mutagen” which will bridge the gap between him and barrels of money.
The heroes on the halfshell are quickly characterized into distinct personality buckets to help us tell them apart. Donatello the nerd, Raphael the brooding loner, Leonardo the leader, Michelangelo the goof. They stick closely to their defined traits, for better or worse, without any depth. The sophisticated character design actually achieves more in the way of personifying the turtles than the writing. Each has his own distinguishable visual presence with unique body language, expression range, accessories, size, features, and muscle tone. The textures and movement evoke a beefier, tougher, more visceral variation than we’ve seen of the turtles before, which works surprisingly well.
While the turtles attempt to stop Sacks and Shredder, they bounce around in action scenes that don’t really make an effort to make sense. With the laws of physics so readily disregarded, it’s a wonder people don’t just start floating away in the middle of dialogue scenes. But that’s a thread we don’t want to pull; this is a basically an expensive cartoon disguised as a live action movie, so there’s no serious crime in heightening the action.
The real crime committed here (aside from belligerent product placement) is lazy storytelling. Every trope is neatly plugged in, each character going through the obligatory motions. The leads leap from one mishap to the next, giving rushed and flimsy explanations of how they know where to go or how to get there. If at any point Donatello didn’t explain their next move, the movie would come to a dead stop. And when April rescues the turtles from Sacks’ blood-draining machine, there may as well be a button that says “save turtles,” because what’s there makes just about as much sense.
To its credit, TMNT builds and maintains a solid momentum, and it gets to its conclusion quickly enough that we don’t dwell on the abundance of “ah-ha” moments or roll our eyes when the villain rejoices in explaining his sinister plan to everyone who will listen. Its pacing and humor may be enough to occupy the youngsters, even if it won’t make much of an impression.
Many iconic characters were left out of the film, and the ending leaves open the door for a sequel. But I think another reboot is more likely. Either way, they’ll keep beating the turtles into the ground trying to get it right. They never will, because they already did, decades ago. Audiences (even kids) want something fresh – not a rehash of what today’s filmmakers favored on Saturday mornings 25 years ago, when television was very different. The day of the turtles has long passed, and now we’re just beating on a dead horse. Er, reptile.