Saturday, August 23, 2014



- First, to preface: there are some things I loved as a kid, and then ... there's the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, as I may or may not have written in the context of previous posts, I grew up a total Turtlemaniac. On Saturday mornings I would dutifully watch each new episode of the TMNT cartoon. I collected the action figures, played the videogames, and drew hundreds of carefully-conceived comic book-style drawings of my favorite heroes in a half-shell and their various enemies and allies. And so, while a part of me wanted to simply dismiss this latest Turtles movie, throwing a grizzled middle finger at the Michael Bay-produced reboot, this was one where the pull of youthful nostalgia was simply too strong. There's something else, too. As a kid, I vividly remember all the public outcry about how the Turtles were corrupting a nation's youth. I remember parents worried that the show was inspiring their kids to be violent, rude, and weird. I remember an older generation that simply didn't get how their kids and grandkids could be so enamored with these Teenaged Ninja Mutant Turtles ... or whatever they were called. And now, twenty-five years later, you've got to admit ... there's something awesome about the Turtles still being alive and kicking and #1 at the box office. It feels like a hearty screw-you from my generation to the old farts who made us feel a sense of guilt for loving what we loved. Not only did we keep the Turtles around, but by-god, a whole new generation of kids has grown up yelling "Cowabunga!" and becoming obsessed with nunchuk-weieding mutant teens. So take that, Mom and Dad.

And by the way ... I see a lot of movie reviews out there from the ever-bitter Gen-X crowd that lament a generation that takes the Turtles seriously, and condescendingly wonders how it is that 20 and 30-somethings still carry nostalgic affection for this particular franchise. This coming from the same people who have collectively creamed themselves over Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just think there's a tendency for people to look down on anything that they missed out on because they were too old. The same way I instinctively get annoyed when I see people younger than me posting nostalgically about some crap from the 00's that I was old enough not to care about at the time. I'm not saying that we don't look back on old cartoons and other childhood ephemera with rose-colored glasses ... because we do. And I'm not saying that that is always a healthy thing that should be encouraged. However, let's also acknowledge that there was indeed a certain imagination, originality, scope, and flat-out awesome factor to the Turtles that caused them to make such an impact, and that's kept them in the pop-cultural conversation long after predicted expiration dates.

Okay, all that aside ... the new TMNT movie is not exactly all that. It feels like a Frankenstein-monster of a film. Rarely have I seen a blockbuster movie where its various layers of creation felt so exposed. Meaning, this is very clearly a movie that went through many drastic re-writes and creative overhauls prior to the final product hitting theaters. The result is a film that feels like a broken-down house with a fresh coat of paint or two hastily applied to try to cover the cracks. Problem is ... they missed a few spots.

Here's what they basically got right: the personalities and humor of the Turtles themselves. Whoever did a script-polish on this thing to flesh out the Turtles' antics and witty banter deserves credit. The Turtles are likable and funny, and their personalities feel pretty much spot-on as compared to the classic cartoons and films. In fact, I may even go so far as to say that the Turtles feel a little more distinct in this incarnation than in some others - each Turtle has a unique look (i.e. they are not just color-swapped clones of each other), and each has a very distinguishable persona. Perhaps they go a little far in this regard at times (did brilliant-scientist Donatello really need to be a full-on glasses-sporting geek? probably not). But I think that what carries the movie through its weaker points is that the Turtles pretty much are done right. Michelangelo is the show-stealer, no question. He has some genuinely funny quips, and kids will love him. Rafael is suitably badass. Leonardo is, as ever, the more serious and contemplative team leader. Many have rightfully called out the movie's short-but-excellent elevator scene as a prime example of how well the movie captures the fun and goofy chemistry between the brothers. Even if the relationship tropes are well-worn at this point (must Leonardo and Raphael have a falling out in every TMNT movie?), there's nothing that feels inherently off (at least with the Turtles - there are, however, some awkward and slightly creepy come-ons from Will Arnett's Vernon to the much-younger April O'Neil). These are the Turtles we know and love, and they are entertaining and likable.

What does the movie not get so right? The story and plotting. The plot of the movie a.) makes little to no sense, and b.) seems to crib from the worst aspects of many major modern blockbusters. One issue is, again, the appearance that large portions of the script were axed last-minute and hastily re-written. Going into this movie, I was under the impression that William Fichtner played arch-villain Shredder. Turns out, he does not. This is not a spoiler or big reveal. Fichtner plays evil businessman/scientist Eric Sacks, a former colleague of April O'Neil's father, who also happens to be in league with Shredder. Shredder is played by Tohoru Masamune, but mostly appears as a CGI videogame boss who moves and attacks like a character from Tekken. But, pretty clearly, at some point ... William Fichtner was supposed to have been Shredder. His back-story sets him up to be the movie's Big Bad. And he even has the Shredder armor ominously on-display in his palatial manor. He glares at it knowingly, clearly foreshadowing that, yup, this dude is going to be Shredder. But such is not the case. And that's theoretically okay, since most Turtles fans wanted Shredder to be a Japanese ninja master, and not William Fichtner (yes, William Fichtner is awesome-as-crap, but not really cut-out for Shredder). But what's not okay in practice is that Shredder - the biggest and baddest nemesis of the Turtles - is essentially a non-character in this film. There's no real personal connection to the Turtles or Splinter (one of the most memorable aspects, certainly, of the original movie), and, worse, the guy has no real motivations or reason-for-being except because, you know, evil and stuff. Ol' Chrome Dome deserves better. 

Meanwhile, multiple key story elements seem cut-and-pasted in chaotic and often frustrating fashion. The evil plan of Sacks and Shredder to bring NYC to its knees makes little sense. The Turtles' mutated blood ends up being a lazy sort of MacGuffin that seems to just be a concession to the fact that, "hey, every big movie is doing 'magic blood' plot devices these days, so we might as well hop aboard the bandwagon." That said, much of the story revolves not around the Turtles themselves, but around April (Megan Fox), and *her* back-story. Turns out, the Turtles were actually a young April's pets and her scientist father's test subjects. When Sacks turned on April's father and destroyed his lab, April saved the Turtles (but for some reason dumped them in the sewer ...?), who, unknown to her, were exposed to mutagen and on their way to becoming giant mutant turtle superheroes. All of this is problematic on many levels. For one, having April be the one with an eventual vendetta against Sacks is okay in and of itself ... but again, it means that the Turtles and Splinter have no real rivalry of their own - they are really fighting April's battle. For another thing, the details of all this back-story barely add up. There's lots of seemingly-contradictory stuff in the script, and there's a lot that simply makes no sense. Yes, this is TMNT and a certain degree of suspension-of-disbelief is required., but asking for a coherent plot that gets you emotionally invested should not be that much of a tall order. 

One more pet peeve about the Turtles' origin story, as told to us in the movie by Splinter (slight SPOILERS ahead): apparently, he found a book about ninjas that washed up into the sewer, taught himself to be a ninja, and then taught the Turtles to be ninjas. So ... WTF? Isn't the whole point of ninjitsu that it's a secret and deadly art that can't just be learned from a book? It's a seemingly minor point, but it sort of undermines something that was always cool about the original cartoons and comics and films: they took the "ninja" part of the title seriously. Seriously. A huge part of my fascination with TMNT stemmed from my parallel fascination with martial arts, ninjas, etc. Between the fact that this film's Splinter just taught himself to be a ninja from a book, and the non-character that is Shredder, and the non-entity that is The Foot Clan ... this movie does not feel very ninja-y. Someone did not get the memo that the "ninja" part of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is, indeed, the best part. 

As for what in the movie is a mixed bag ... I'd point to the visuals and action. First, I'll speak to the character design of the Turtles. I still don't love 'em, but they are also not *as* bad as I originally thought. In motion, the Turtles don't look as ugly and scary as they do in still photos. And yet, let's just acknowledge that the decision to give the Turtles human-like noses, with nostrils, was a horrible one. It looks bad, and it makes the Turtles look too freakish and monstrous. The basic design of the Turtles was classic, and this was an ill-advised change. That said, it's no coincidence that the Turtles here look straight out of an XBOX game. They move like videogame characters, and the action scenes whip and zoom like they're hopped-up on Mountain Dew: Code Red. Mostly, they are fun and riveting - as with a roller-coaster like vehicular chase scene down a snowy mountain range. However, when the battles become more personal, there is undoubtedly a weightlessness to the fights that causes an emotional remove. Oddly, the movie's climactic fight with Shredder is quite similar to the final fight in the original Turtles film. But while that battle is a classic confrontation that kids quoted and re-enacted for years to come, this one is cool, in the moment, but ultimately pretty forgettable. In short, the movie's action excels at being pure amusement-park ride fun, but doesn't quite pack the punch to truly feel epic and memorable from a narrative perspective.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES isn't *that* bad. In many ways, in tone and personality, it feels surprisingly reminiscent of the classic cartoons. It's got moments that are a lot of fun, and it's never as offensive or insultingly stupid as the Transformer movies. Director Jonathan Liebsman could learn a thing or two about giving his action weight and emotional heft, but undoubtedly, he crafts slicker and more coherent action scenes than producer Michael Bay. But some exciting action scenes and some funny moments still can't fully cover for the fact that the core of this movie was probably never very strong to begin with. It's not a huge leap to assume that a lot of last-minute band-aids were applied to the film to try to fix a host of major plot issues - but the band-aids can only do so much. This is frustrating, because, man, how hard can it be to write a kick-ass TMNT story? If one understands the elements that fans love most about the franchise, it shouldn't be rocket-science. The upside is that the elements are there, at least in part, to take the base of this film and do better with a sequel. Nothing here is broken beyond repair (well, except for those nostrils).

It's not like there's some gold standard of TMNT story that I want to see replicated. I'm not *that* blinded by nostalgia, and I also don't know the comics well enough to point to the source material as an ideal. Here's what I do know: those old TMNT cartoons - despite all the merchandising and cash-ins - were so gleefully weird, and such a crazy gateway into so many cool things (underground comics, martial arts, sci-fi) - that my hope is for the franchise - if it continues - to continue to be that gateway for kids. It's funny, because Guardians of the Galaxy was, in some ways, like a modern-day TMNT - a rock n' roll trip through The Weird that was both funny and imagination-expanding. This Turtles has moments of fun-unleashed, but it feels a little too cynically-created, and a lot too assembled-by-committee, to truly get one tripping on Turtle Power. But hey, at least that Wiz Khalifa song ("Shell-shocked!") that plays over the ending credits is pretty awesome.

My Grade: C+

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