Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Screenwriters: Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson
Paramount Pictures | Nickelodeon Movies
Rated PG-13 | 101 Minutes
Release Date: August 8, 2014
Platinum Dunes. The production company created by Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form came on the scene in 2003 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a remake of Tobe Hooper’s classic 1974 film. Since then, they’ve rebooted just about every popular horror franchise you can imagine: The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher*, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Somehow – through some sort of covenant with the Devil, I assume – Platinum Dunes obtained the film rights to Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the beloved franchise created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Enter Paramount Pictures, who produced recent “name-brand” disappointments like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, World War Z, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Hercules. I say disappointment not because these movies were failures at the box office, quite the opposite actually. They’re just not good films. They’re lazy, generic blockbusters in a world where movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy are thrilling audiences and critics alike.
Since ending their partnership with Marvel Studios, Paramount has been leaning on franchises like Transformers and Paranormal Activity, shelling out sequels with diminishing returns. So, when Bay’s production company acquired the film rights to an insanely popular brand like TMNT, Paramount jumped at the chance to produce a big-budget, effects-heavy reboot. After all, Michael Bay’s Transformers films have made the studio $3.7 billion to date, so why wouldn’t you attempt to replicate that success with another franchise? It’s a no-brainer – just like Bay’s films!
Hoping for a new, nostalgia-driven series that combines state-of-the-art special effects, explosions, unintelligible action sequences, more explosions, crude humor, and Megan Fox in tight-fitting clothes, Paramount and Bay have utilized the “winning formula” of the Transformers franchise in an attempt to make as much money as possible while giving the least amount of shits one could possibly give. By that measure, they’ve definitely succeeded. Directed by Jonathan Liebsman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is just another empty, soulless cash grab – a film that seemingly embraces being generic, derivative, and downright lazy.
You know the story: Four turtles – Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) – have mutated into teenage ninjas with an affinity for pizza, hip-hop, and skateboarding. With the guidance of their sensei, a talking rat named Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), and the unlikely friendship of reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles must do battle with the evil Shredder and his Foot Clan.
The characters are more or less the same: Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but crude, and Michelangelo is a party dude. Also, Splinter is still technically a “radical rat.” What’s different is their origins – a dim-witted and completely unnecessary change that overcomplicates a story that has worked relatively well for 30 years. In Liebesman’s film, Splinter and the Turtles were April O’Neil’s childhood pets. So now we’ve introduced this idea of destiny – that April isn’t just some reporter who accidentally stumbles upon four talking vigilante turtles who live in the sewers of New York. Now she’s destined to meet up with them and stop the Shredder, who has no personal connection whatsoever to Splinter or the Turtles.
The names Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki aren’t used in the film at all. Here, Splinter is just a lab rat who – after being injected with an extraterrestrial mutagen by April’s scientist father – becomes a giant, super-smart rat that sounds a lot like Monk. Luckily, he comes across a Beginner’s Guide to Ninjutsu book down in the sewers so he can train his adopted turtle sons how to defend themselves. As for Shredder, he’s reduced to an Iron Man villain – just some bad guy in a big metal suit that looks like an amalgam of Silver Samurai, Megatron, and Uber Jason Voorhees from Jason X.
I’ll give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles credit for looking sharp. The special effects are impressive – and there are a few action set pieces that capture the movement and personalities of the Turtles appropriately. As far as performances go, Megan Fox does an entirely decent job with what she’s given (i.e., not much) while Johnny Knoxville brings absolutely nothing to the role of Leonardo. Beyond being a “big name,” I have no idea what the Jackass star is doing in this movie. As for the rest of the Turtle actors, their performances are serviceable, but there’s nothing memorable about them.
The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty is the real problem here. There are rough drafts of character arcs – a subtle hint of development – but almost every thread unravels halfway through the film. In the first act, April is stuck doing puff pieces for Channel 6 News and wants to be a serious reporter. Once she uncovers the Foot Clan’s plot and the existence of the Turtles, you’d think there’d be a beat where April struggles with exposing the Turtles and breaking a huge exclusive – but that thread disappears once she discovers they’re part of her “family.” Raphael and Leonardo’s opposing ideals (individuality vs. family) create tension within the group, but Mikey and Donnie have nothing to do other than flirt with April and hack electronic devices. The film is self-aware of these deficiencies and moves at hyper-speed, hoping you’ll be too dazed by all the pretty colors to realize the plot is paper-thin.
Overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t as blasphemous as José Padilha’s recent remake of RoboCop or offensive as Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it’s still well within the realm of “complete and total disappointment.” I wish someone had regarded this movie as something more than an opportunity to sell action figures and create product placement opportunities for Pizza Hut and Orange Crush. I wish someone involved would’ve given at least one shit – but of course we’re talking about the same people who churn out brain-dead Transformers movies filled with racist stereotypes and giant robots with wrecking balls for testicles.
Perhaps with a different director and a better script this could have been a solid, fun summer movie – but it’s not. It’s just a careless, generic rehash of what we’ve already seen done better on screen. Why not introduce some of the more “out-there” elements of the franchise like Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, the Technodrome, Dimension X – just get as crazy and weird as possible and build a legit TMNT universe that’s fresh and unique!
Ah, who am I kidding? Platinum Dunes and Paramount Pictures know that moviegoers will buy a ticket to crap like this as long as they include a few beloved characters. Why put effort into making something cool when you can make a billion dollars by exploiting the collective nostalgia of your audience?
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* OK, so The Hitcher wasn’t exactly a “popular” horror movie, but you know what I mean.