I imagine that many people who have seen the Michael Bay produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did so out of a sense of obligation. After all, many of us grew up with the 1980s and ’90s cartoon about four far-out turtles who have not one, not two, but three qualifiers to their turtle-ness. That show had it all for a kid: humorous dialogue, memorable villains, great catchphrases, harmless violence, and color-coded anthropomorphic characters. While the show had drifted far from the story’s roots as a comic book parodying the grittiness of Frank Miller, it also had a lot of fun, and that made up for it. the Turtles cartoon is something that brings me joy to think about, and so I knew I would see the live action movie, despite every logical part of my brain telling me to spend those two hours doing something productive, like complaining about the movie on the internet.
Maybe my obligation gave me low standards going into the movie, but I had a pretty pleasant realization about 30 minutes into the CGI fiesta: TMNT is average, but not painful. It’s Transformers rather than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—just average enough not to induce drowsiness. As much as that might not sound like high praise, it’s actually refreshing for someone who’s sick of the beat down that franchises are getting in film right now. The characters are quickly defined, and the villain (mostly William Fichtner) has a great presence, although his motivation is summed up in the character’s own words as wanting to be “rich. Like, stupid rich.” There is a handful of moments that get a chuckle. The pacing for the first hour holds my interest, even though I tend to get bored in action movies.
The last forty minutes, though, emphasize the numerous flaws. The pacing gets all out of wack, as there are a few big action scenes in a row that have almost no stakes because the villains have proven themselves too stupid to accomplish anything. After Shredder—whose outfit is so overdecorated that it has no charm and would look indulgent even if it were in a Tarantino flick—beats the hell out of everyone, he decides to leave Raphael and Splinter’s bodies around because someone says, “They look dead.” Mind you, they need the turtles’ blood, “every last drop.” I mean, seriously? They’ve been planning and working on a biochemical attack for years, but they can’t take the time to check a pulse?
On top of the idiot plot—and maybe I’m just getting old and cranky—I can’t get invested in an action sequence that is almost 100% CGI. The explosions, the buildings, and even the main characters are all CGI, and it looks like a video game with no art style to make it engaging. I just can’t get absorbed in the action, and that issue makes me realize that I can’t get into the characters, either. They’re too unrealistically animated to draw empathy visually, and the writing is so poor that it doesn’t humanize them. While they are clearly defined and have jokes tailored to their personalities, those jokes often don’t fit with the scene, and are too obviously set up. Also, for some reason, Will Arnett plays April O’Neil’s scuzzy co-worker, presumably for comedic effect. But first of all, his character isn’t funny, and second of all, why have a character for comedic effect when the four main characters are meant to be constant comedic effect?
Will Arnett’s character actually shares an oddly specific quality with Michelangelo: weird, sexist tendencies toward April. The decision to filter the story through April’s eyes is interesting (and logical given her role as audience avatar in many forms of TMNT), but it’s undercut by the fact that Arnett is constantly acting as a predatory coworker who should definitely be fired for sexual harassment, and that Michelangelo’s character arc is defined by the number of times he refers to April as hot in one scene. It just not all that funny, as the only jokes are that O’Neil doesn’t like Arnett, and Michelangelo wants to bang April. Objectifying your main character isn’t ever worthwhile, especially not when it’s for lazy humor.
Beyond the sexism—which isn’t nearly the worst I’ve seen in child-oriented blockbusters, sadly—the style of the movie is pathetically ironic. It’s clearly replicating the gritty urban style of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and the characters even joke about sounding or behaving like Batman.The sweeping long shots of a grey-blue, crime-ridden city could be lifted directly from any of the three Batman flicks, or any generic action film of the last five years. The first scene where April sees the Turtles is a pretty clear rip of Batman’s debut at the dockyard in Batman Begins. Yet, there’s a conflicting sensibility of frivolity and goofiness that just doesn’t mesh. The Turtles are funny, and it’s fine to play them that way. It’s also fine to be serious. Either way, if you’re not skilled enough to deftly transfer between the two impulses, you need to commit. That being said, the gritty scenes are doubly hilarious because TMNT‘s original incarnation was a parody of the very style the movie is unsuccessfully emulating, which shows just how unaware the creative team behind this movie is of the franchise they’re adapting.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a good movie, but as much as I’ve spent most of this review complaining, I need to return to and emphasize the movie’s context. It’s a crappy popcorn flick made to capitalize on movie-goers’ nostalgia. As far as those goals go, the result could have been a lot worse. Maybe the filmmakers will let themselves have some more fun with the sequel, but one thing’s for sure—once it’s on demand, I will probably drink a beer in shame as I watch it.