This movie has been something of a looming storm cloud in the eyes of many fans for a few years now. Passionate lovers of these enduring reptile warriors were outraged that producer Michael Bay had gotten his hands on another piece of their childhood, even at one point threatening to create a version of the story where the turtles are aliens. Now, after fortunately coming to his senses on that front, Bay has handed the job over to ‘Wrath of the Titans’ director Jonathan Libesman to create the film we now have before us. So where do I fall on this whole controversy…quite simply, I don’t care. Honestly, even if they had ended up as aliens, I would have gone with it. Sure, I enjoyed the turtles as a kid, but now I can completely acknowledge that it’s a ridiculous story that deserves an equally ridiculous film, and since I’ve enjoyed most of the Transformers films I thought that under Bay’s eye this could be a fun B movie. Let’s see how that worked out for me, shall we?
We start things off following April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a fluff reporter with a thirst for more complex stories and her partner Vernon (Will Arnett) in pursuit of a rising criminal organization called the Foot Clan. When April finds herself in the midst of a hostage situation in a subway station, she comes across something miraculous, four ferocious warriors who wipe out the group of foot soldiers, shrouded in darkness. Slight twist, these four warriors just so happen to be seven foot tall, talking turtles, who have been trained in the art of the ninja by their rat master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub/Danny Woodburn) in the sewers. There’s Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville/Pete Ploszek) who is the level headed, cautious leader of the group, Raphael (Alan Ritchson) a daunting physical presence with a temper to boot, Donatello (Jeremy Howard) the computer smart techie of the group, and Michelangelo (Noel Fischer) the wise-cracking, relaxed skateboarder dude. Together, they must team up against the foot clan’s leader, the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) before they launch a biological weapon into the city.
Uneven. That’s the main word that was running through my head throughout this. There are parts of this that are absolutely fantastic, that completely capture the spirit of the source material. However, there are also a great deal of hindrances that constantly hold it being back from quite being the absurdly fun ride the movie so desperately wants to be.
The biggest attribute this film has is the turtles themselves, this is perhaps the coolest interpretation of these characters that we have seen thus far. On a visual level, the designs are just stellar. Characters that were once only distinguishable by the color of their headband, now are each given unique physical qualities that define their personalities, particularly evident in the bulging, seemingly roided out arms of Raphael, and the many neat gadgets and trinkets that are just all over Donatello. Also, the choice to use fairly unknown actors (with the exception of Knoxville, who was added in late in the game and also does a fine job) pays off beautifully. These guys completely inhabit these characters with a marriage of spot on physical motion capture work, and expressive vocal performances. Each turtle feels completely unique and the banter between them really feels like a group of brothers. They act like bratty teenagers, giving each other a whole world of crap, but are there for each other through the end. Fischer in particular shines as the air headed Michelangelo, a turtle with a passionate love of pizza, and to a borderline weird degree, April.
In fact, all of the outlandish characters are really well brought to life here. While I was skeptical of the choice of Shalhoub as the voice of Splinter, he ends up doing very nice work, really coming across as a stern, but loving father to these kids. Beyond that, he’s just a complete bad ass. This is the first time that I ever believed that this rat could train ninjas, and honestly, I could watch a movie that is just about him beating the crap out of everything in his path. Also, I loved the robotic re-design of Shredder, it’s imposing, and tactical. While he’s given hardly any character development, he works as a daunting physical challenge for these already very skilled warriors.
The movie also completely delivers the goods in the action department. While never exactly having a penchant for making good movies, Jonathan Libesman has always had a nice eye for these types of sequences, and here, his style meshes nicely with a very Michael Bay like sensibility. While the action is all extremely hectic, Libesman beautifully captures it with his flowing camerawork, with a heavy and very refreshing eye for tracking shots, particularly in a spectacular chase sequence down an icy tundra that proves to be one of the coolest battles of the summer. The fight choreography here is also really nice, each character having his own distinctive style. The movie is never afraid to just go completely comic book crazy, exaggerating everything to the fullest degree, and that’s as fun as it sounds. If you do see this, see it in the theater, because these visuals absolutely deserve the showcase.
Where things start to fall apart is everything that does not directly involve the turtles. All of the human characters are completely flat. While Fox certainly gives it her best shot, and does a better job here than in the Transformers films, her delivery is still really stilted and for a character that we have to spend a great deal of time with (more on that in a second), she never particularly engages us in her drive for answers. Arnett, certainly a more than capable comedic actor, is saddled with some of the worst comic relief lines I’ve ever heard, desperately trying to be funny throughout the whole film, but only occasionally manages a couple chuckles. Same goes for Whoopi Goldberg as April’s boss, she might as well not even be there. As for our antagonist, William Fichtner is a consummate professional, delivering this shlockly material with everything he has, but his character is so generic that even he can’t seem to make him interesting. He’s there to deliver exposition while sounding nefarious, nothing more.
The screenplay is extremely wonky, and the pacing is noticeably off. It takes quite some time for the turtles to become prominent in their own film, and because the writing is so weak on the human characters, that first thirty or so minutes really is a slog. It’s a story chock full of coincidence, contrivance, and silliness. While there actually is a fairly inventive spin on the turtles’ origin spliced in, it never really feels as original as it actually is, because the whole expository part of the film is just so boring. Once the action kicks in, it rarely lets up, and this becomes much less of a problem, but it’s certainly notable.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles certainly delivers where it really counts for a silly movie like this. The ass kicking amphibians we came to see are as entertaining as one would expect, and the action sequences are extremely well put together. However, it takes quite some time for the movie to actually become enjoyable, as the turtles slowly make their way more and more into the forefront, pushing out the sleep inducing other elements of the story. It certainly is a fun time though, and by the end, I actually felt an attachment to these silly turtles during a surprisingly effective emotional beat in the climax, which certainly bodes well.