Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles directed by Jonathan Liebsman, produced by the infamous Michael Bay and written by Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty. This is the first live action film since the last TMNT film in 1993 that fans like me want to forget ever existed. Despite all of the negative press prior to the film’s release like Michael Bay’s name being attached, the turtles were gonna be aliens, that god awful leaked script, Megan Fox cast as April O’ Neil, questionable ninja turtle designs and so much more. Everyone was expecting an abomination that would make the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III look like gold. So is this film the train wreck everyone was expecting? Shell-shockingly not.
So does that mean this movie turned out great? Sorry, but it’s not quite that either. The film had all of the potential in the world to be great but instead it settled for a mediocre OK. First, I want to get this out of the way. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might just arguably be my favorite franchise of all time. I have been obsessed with the turtles probably before I have even been potty trained. I have watched every show, seen every movie countless times over my life, I own almost every single Mirage issue and enjoy the new IDW comics, new Nickelodeon series and so on. This movie was a pretty big deal for me and like many others I moaned and complained about every little detail I heard this movie before it came out. Eventually more trailers and tv spots poured out and I started to become cautiously optimistic like “this movie might be good.” I still turned out wrong for the most part, good movie this is not… but there is still a lot to like for turtles fans.
We all went to see this film for the Ninja Turtles and they are of course the best thing about the film and for the most part are handled quite well. The actors playing the motion capture are spot on casting and do a brilliant job of bringing these characters to life. Even Johnny Knoxville voicing Leonardo does a great job and I know some people are still bothered by it but I’ve always felt a gruff and tough voice suited Leonardo more. Tony Shalhoub is especially fantastic voicing Master Splinter and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The chemistry and the personalities of the turtles and Master Splinter were done well and when ever they were on screen I couldn’t stop smiling.
Unfortunately, it isn’t without their flaws. First, the turtles aren’t in the movie that much. In the first 30 minutes of the film you see them at most maybe about 5 minutes and don’t fully become part of the story until almost 40 minutes in. Then when they do become part of the film the pacing of the movie moves at such a break neck pace that you hardly get the chance to really know any of the characters. Everything ends up feeling so rushed that all of the characters come across as one dimensional. Hell, if I didn’t know who the Ninja Turtles were and saw this I’d call them half dimensional characters. For an origin story the movie still expects you to know everything about the turtles so nothing about their personalities are ever explored. We just get a few cheap lines or visual cues to show us who they are but they never pay off or develop in a satisfying fashion.
To give an example, Raphael, the teams bad ass and my favorite turtle has always been a bit of a jerk but usually because he feels like an outcast and sometimes even a bit insecure around his brothers. At one point in the movie he threatens to move out. This was awesome because in the comics and original movies Raphael would get annoyed with his brothers and threaten to go his own way and move out. But it’s bad in this movie because there is almost no set up for it. Maybe we see him get in a little argument with Leo prior but it last about 2 seconds and then it’s glossed over. It just comes across forced. Even by the end of the movie when the turtles think it’s their final moments on earth they all mention things they want to get off their chest before they die and Raph goes off about how he’s sorry for how he treated his brothers all of life and that he’s sorry he was so hard on them and that it was just because he loved them so much deep down. As a Raphael fan this was beautiful and felt so true to character. It’s what I would expect Raph to say in his final moments cause deep down he’s a giant teddy bear (when he wants to be). But as a movie enthusiast it comes across as shallow. We aren’t given any real build up to this in the movie. Maybe we see one or two quick moments where Raph is a jerk but nothing serious where we can feel and relate to his intense regrets in his possible final moments. It just feels shallow and a poor excuse of character development. The movie is true to the turtles but gives no time to explore them at all.
Another easy example is Donatello, the groups genius and tech guru. We don’t get to explore any of his gadgets or how he builds the things he does. If I didn’t read a bunch of interviews before the film then I would have never known that the contraptions on Donatello that he built allows him the fastest internet access in NY because the film doesn’t bother to explore any of it. It’s like the movie is saying “hey, we don’t have time to explore him as character so let’s throw a bunch of gadgets and nerdy stuff on him to show the audiences he’s the smart and nerdy one” as opposed to actually exploring Donny as a character and show him build something in the movie that actually services the plot. This is disappointing because Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo have so much potential to be well developed characters. The movie is just too scared or lazy to explore any of them fully so we are just left with cut and paste versions of our favorite turtles.
There is also the controversy of the new origin story. For the Ninja Turtles there has always been a new origin story with almost every new show or any other type of medium reboot but at the core of all of those origins have the turtles as mutants with brothers and family being the main theme. Luckily the film keeps this. This films origins seems to be heavily inspired from the new IDW comic with April O’ Neil having a huge involvement in the turtles origins along with the turtles being lab experiments. For the most part I enjoyed the new origin and you actually get an awesome sequence when you see the turtles as little kids and it’s such a charming sequence. I loved watching the turtles as kids and they looked for a lack of better term, adorable. There is two huge flaws in their origin story though…
One, Splinter learns Martial arts and Ninjutsu from a book and two, there is no Hamato Yoshi connection. Now I know the entire premise of Ninja Turtles is silly but there is just something believable about humanoid mutated turtles. But learning martial arts from a book? No. Just no. It’s not possible. This could have been fixed in the film during the entire origin scene though. For example, even though Splinter learns a lot from the book they could have shown that the book was just a catalyst for wanting to learn via other means. Like they could have shown Splinter sneak into the many dojos in NYC and where he watches their training carefully from the shadows. They could have also showed Splinter watch and study a bunch of Martial art tapes and movies. Also maybe show some scenes of Splinter stealing food from dumpsters for the turtles and being jumped by thugs and using his martial arts prowess that helped him grow to become so masterful at fighting and stealth. Anything to make it a bit more plausible than just a book. Also without the Hamato Yoshi connection that means Splinter is no longer Japanese so all of his obsession with Japanese culture and his Fuu Manchu mustache seems a bit odd now. Also there is that missing rivalry between Splinter and Shredder so when do have an epic showdown in the film it does still feel like a missed opportunity despite how stunning the fight is. The Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki story is a big part of the turtles history even if it is a bit different in each new series. It just isn’t here at all however.
Now there’s the handful of human characters which weren’t as terrible as I thought they’d be. Megan Fox as April O’ Neil though miscast wasn’t bad in her role. Yeah, sometimes Megan Fox looked a little too confused too much of the time for no reason but the movie was at least building up a decent arc for her character. It was a great idea of April wanting to go from boring news reporter to daring journalist but the movie kinda forgets about that half way through. The film also focuses on April way too much. I don’t care if they had better actress for April who I felt was better suited for the role because just having April as such a huge focus does not work. When we go to see a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles we don’t wanna come out saying it should have been titled April O’ Neil.
Will Arnett as Vernon Fenwick (or Vern) does an ok job. His character is a lot different than it was in the original 80’s cartoon but his character was so insignificant it doesn’t really matter. The name just felt like a nod to the old TV show character. Will Arnett wasn’t really all that funny here like he is in real life but most of that is probably to be blamed on the script’s dialogue. It’s hard to talk about a character who had such little to do other than to be April’s sidekick. But I like Will Arnett so it was nice seeing him, I guess?
Then there’s Eric Sacks played by William Fitchner who we all thought was going to be Shredder. Well, he isn’t. He’s just your generic evil businessman. It’s all speculation that he was originally suppose to be Shredder and that reshoots changed it that so that he wasn’t Shredder anymore. Or maybe perhaps he was never meant to be the Shredder from the get go and the filmmakers were just playing with our emotions. Anyway, his final role in the movie felt like a huge throwaway and waste of talent. William Fitchner looked to enjoy his role as the villanious Eric Sacks and loved hamming it up in almost every scene he’s in. But his role and motives just seem too silly and pointless. Especially when Sacks is nothing but a mere pawn and the real Shredder is the central antagonist in the film pulling the strings.
Then there’s guy who’s really the Shredder and there’s actually a Japanese guy playing The Shredder named Tohoru Masamune. On the downside you only see him out of his armor in about two scenes but he’s incredibly mysterious and encased in shadow. I was actually really pleased with the direction they took with Shredder and I loved that the character spoke mostly Japanese. I thought it felt true yet new to the character as we are so use to seeing him speak English all the time in other incarnations. Even what few lines he has in english he sounds great too. I know a lot of people like to hate on his robotic armor but personally I loved it and his array of magnetic blades added an awesome dynamic to the films action sequences. Though I am disappointed he was never referred by his real name, Oroku Saki, it seems like they’re saving a lot for the inevitable sequel and I’m curious to see how they will continue it. Shredder whooped a lot of ass and I liked his casting. Despite his silly plan with Sacks for wealth and power he was one of the more fan pleasing things to me about this movie. I seriously applaud the filmmakers for actually making him speak Japanese. That gave me such a huge grin.
There are a couple other minor human characters like Minae Noji playing Karai but it’s such an insignificant role. She just wasn’t given enough material and I hope she is expanded on more in the sequel. Karai should be able to hold her own against the turtles and in this she goes down multiple times with ease. I was disappointed they made her use a gun rather than a katana. I can deal with the foot clan using guns but Karai? She doesn’t need that.
So the movie ended up with a scatter shot plot and lack of depth and development to its characters but it’s still not the complete and utter mess most of us were expecting. The acting is decent, the original score is good, the CGI looks great and the action scenes are quite fantastic. In fact the action scenes are a stand out. I loved every action sequence in this movie. Especially my favorite one involving Splinter finally getting into an epic fight against Shredder. Finally, we get to see Splinter get into the action in a live action movie. There is also a fantastic snow chase and the final fight with Shredder was great. The movie is well shot but poorly written. If the film had a better script it could have been so good.
There is just too many contrived or cliched moments. Also some of the logic and dialogue in the script will make you lose some brain cells like “Drain their blood…even if it kills them.” But if you’ve read the original leaked script this movie is an absolute god send in comparison. Serious, read that leaked script and you will cry at how bad it is. Cliched moments and contrivances are abundant in most movies these days but they tend to overcome those flaws with great well rounded characters and a well written central plot. The thing this movie movie needed. The films biggest crime is that it doesn’t do more with what it has. Everything feels like one huge missed opportunity. It felt like the movie just wanted to rush to the end goal as fast as possible and didn’t wanna stop to have a bit of fun or bonding with its characters on the way.
The movie does actually try to do this at one point. It’s the scene where the turtles are riding up an elevator to the final showdown with Shredder but before doing so begin beat boxing and joking around to release the tension which ends up probably being the best scene in the movie. It’s not just the best scene in the movie because it’s funny but because it’s one of the few genuine bonding moments between the turtles. The movie needed to be a bit more of that. Also despite being the best scene in the movie the filmmakers still decided to cut that scene short because in TV ads we see the scene go on much longer. In fact I recall a lot of scene or lines in the trailer and tv spots that didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie. I can’t help but feel like in the cutting room floor there was still potential for a better movie as is. It makes me sad because I’m such a huge turtles fan and the movie was just so close to being good. If they expanded all of the good stuff about this movie it would have been a huge stand out hit this summer. There are still tons of nods in this movie to TMNT fans of every generation that despite what you feel about this movie you’d be insane not to smile at least once.
Not bad but not great. Tons of great moments and nods to fan ruined by an inconsistent script and weak character development. A lot to like but the flaws are too strong to overlook. Maybe in 2016 when the sequel releases they can fix the problems with this and give us turtle fans the movie we really deserve. Just get a good script, take your time with it, gives us some character development and way more of the turtles. But please, please, do not kiddy it up like Secret of the Oooze.