By Dan Murrell
The Ninja Turtles franchise reminds me of my old high school: it’s very close to my heart and I had a lot of fun with it when I was young, but clinging to it would be a discouraging sign that I’m still living in the past.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seeks to update the franchise for a new generation, and it succeeds, in that it’s the same loud, dumb action film that we’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters. This film marks the first time that the Turtles have been on-screen in a live-action feature in over 20 years. While the three previous live-action films hold sentimental value to a generation of adults, the truth of the matter is that they aren’t very good. Some things never change.
I would say that the origin of the Ninja Turtles needs no explanation, but this film disagrees with me, as it spends a good chunk of its first hour retelling how our heroes came to be. I will give the movie credit for taking the story in a new direction. It’s a head-scratching new direction, but at least it’s original. It also adheres to Article 1 of the Modern Law of Reboots, which states that every character has to have known each other for their entire lives. At this point, I’m expecting Batman v Superman to open with a young Bruce Wayne cradling his dead parents’ bodies under the wreckage of baby Kal-El’s crashed spaceship.
The rest of the plot swings wildly between overly simplistic and needlessly complicated. I pine for the days when radioactive goo falling into a sewer grate passed as an acceptable superhero origin. It mainly boils down to the Turtles versus the Shredder, who may or may not be played by William Fichtner, who may or may not be a bad guy pretending to be good. The marketing has decided to be coy about it, so I’ll play along.
One plot point that does surface, for the second time this summer, is the villain’s quest for the heroes’ blood and the substances within. This is the third blockbuster movie in two years (after Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) to use magic blood as a McGuffin, making it the strangest Hollywood trend since the rise of Liam Neeson as an action star. It does, however, lead to my favorite line in the movie: “I want you to drain every ounce of their blood. Even if it kills them.” I’m no molecular biologist, but I’ll go ahead and say that, yes, draining every ounce of any living being’s blood would definitely kill it.
Shockingly, the thing the film gets absolutely right is also the thing it has been most criticized for: the Turtles themselves. Despite the uproar over their new design (and they do still look slightly creepy), I bought these Ninja Turtles as a fun band of brothers out to do good. The voice work is solid, though Alan Ritchson’s Raphael sounds like a guy doing a bad Mark Wahlberg impression — much like Mark Wahlberg himself in Transformers: Age of Extinction. The biggest misstep is the casting of Tony Shalhoub as Splinter. Shalhoub is a fine actor, but his soft tones just don’t sound right coming out of a five-foot-tall anthropomorphized rat. When the action kicks in, though, the characters really shine and I felt some of that old magic kick back in.
The human side of the movie is more of a mixed bag. Megan Fox dominates the movie’s running time as April O’Neil, giving the exact performance that we’ve all come to expect from her. I think we’ve seen all the shades of Megan Fox that we’re going to see at this point. Will Arnett, as April’s cameraman Vern, is on-hand for comic relief, which succeeds mainly because Will Arnett is an inherently funny person. Abby Elliott gets a couple of nice moments as April’s roommate. William Fichtner does the best he can do with the character he’s given, though he often has to do the film’s heavy-lifting with a bunch of ridiculous exposition. And the rest of the actors, including Whoopi Goldberg and Taran Killam, are on-screen briefly in roles that could generously be described as thankless.
Despite all the fanboy hand-wringing, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not the childhood-defiling catastrophe that so many people predicted it would be. It’s also not a very good movie. It’s too dumb, too underwritten and too uneven to call a success. It’s certainly not meant for the adults who grew up with the Turtles; even the callbacks to the original series seem forced and halfhearted. I’m also not sure it will land with kids, who might find the first hour too dark and tedious. But if the movie does succeed, it has laid the groundwork for what could be a fun series of movies with this group of Turtles. With the right story and the right balance of action and humor, I could see a sequel to this film being a lot of fun; and, much like my old high school, I might find myself dropping by for a little while to enjoy the memories.