Action Adventure

A Film Review in a Half Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

August 8, 2014Ben MK

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Go ninja go...

The last decade or so has been something of a godsend for children of the '80s, as there's been no shortage of effort to reinvent our most treasured Saturday morning cartoons as mega-budget blockbuster fare. From G.I. Joe to Transformers, we've witnessed a steady stream of our childhood heroes (and villains) reborn on the big screen. And with the next batch of iconic animated characters to get the live-action revisionist treatment having been missing in action for over twenty years, it was only a matter of time until they resurfaced — or, to put it more appropriately, emerged from the sewers.


Of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have always maintained a presence on the small screen, popping up in a number of television series over the years; and they also appeared in the 2007 CG-animated film, TMNT. But their last live-action outing, the unabashedly kid-centric Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, hit theaters way back in 1993.

Their 2014 incarnation — which remains more or less faithful to comic and cartoon canon (albeit with a few fairly innocuous alterations) — marks a semi-return to their gritty comic book roots, but with plenty of over-the-top action and PG-13 humor to light the way. As we learn in the stylish, Frank Miller-esque animated sequence that opens the film, the Turtles — Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) — began their lives as four run-of-the-mill amphibians who, along with a typical household rat named Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), find themselves transformed into anthropomorphized versions of their former selves following an experiment involving a mutagenic green ooze. Hiding out in the sewers of New York City — where Splinter raised them as his own and trained them in the art of ninjitsu — they've been biding their time until their father decrees that they're ready to go above ground and take on the evil Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), whose Foot Clan has been terrorizing the citizens of the Big Apple.

Enter April O'Neil (Megan Fox, sporting a yellow jacket as an ode to her cartoon counterpart), a feisty television reporter who's fed up with doing the "foam and froth" stories she's continually being handed by her boss (Whoopi Goldberg). Eager to earn her stripes as a serious journalist, April's been intently following the trail of crime left by the Foot Clan — much to the chagrin of her lovelorn cameraman, Vernon (Will Arnett) — in the hopes that it will lead to her big break. But when her investigative efforts lead her straight to the Turtles, she inadvertantly becomes entangled in Shredder's nefarious scheme to wreak havoc on the city.

And here's where those fairly innocuous alterations to the Turtles' origins come into play, as the script by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Evan Daugherty makes April — reinvented here as the daughter of one of the two scientists behind those mutagenic experiments — a key player in the Turtles' backstory. Because as it turns out, not only were both the Turtles and Splinter her childhood pets, she also saved them from certain death when she released them into the sewers after her father's lab went up in flames fifteen years earlier.

Meanwhile, the other scientist, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who now sits at the head of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, has spent those fifteen years trying to recreate the mutagen, and has all but given up. However, when he learns that the Turtles have not only survived, but are thriving, he realizes that the research may not have gone up in smoke after all.

And so all the pieces are in place for this latest entry in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. And like the live action adaptations of G.I. Joe and Transformers, it tries to balance a sense of nostalgia for the property with the rush of adrenaline that accompanies such a modern reimagining. Gone are the old, full-body Turtle suits crafted by the legendary Jim Henson's Creature Shop; these new Turtles are a quartet of six-foot-tall green giants, rendered entirely with the aid of CG and state-of-the-art motion capture technology. As a result, they're now as nimble as Spider-Man but as physically imposing as Batman, yet they still retain their inherent — well — Turtle-ness.

Their individual personalities, and the way those personalities complement and clash with one another, are a huge part of what makes the Turtles such endearing characters. And not only do those personalities shine through — with Leo ever the stoic leader, Donnie the brainy science geek, Raph the macho surly type and Mikey the wise-cracking joker — but they completely outshine all of the human characters as well. That's not to say that Fox doesn't do a commendable job as April, Arnett isn't a reasonably reliable comic relief or Fichtner isn't suitably creepy as the link between April and Shredder, but it's wonderful to see that all the cutting-edge special effects in the world haven't turned the Turtles into a soulless mass of pixels. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

As for the action, it's all part and parcel of what you might expect from a Michael Bay production that's helmed by Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman. Although the early battles with the Foot are executed with moderate restraint (with the Turtles' movements evoking the stealthiness of the Dark Knight), things quickly ramp up from there, with the high points being a dizzying chase down a snowy mountainside (involving a semi-truck and a small army of Humvees, no less) and a confrontation with Shredder (who, incidentally, happens to be hulked out in a massive robotically-enhanced suit laden with blades) atop the roof of a downtown skyscraper. In short, there's a definite sense that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles belongs to the same family tree as Michael Bay's Transformers, but the spectacle works because it plays to the characters' cartoon/comic book roots.

The Bottom Line There are two core types of moviegoers who will gravitate to this new Turtles film — those who grew up watching the pizza-loving foursome's movies and TV show in the '80s and '90s and today's kids, who are too young to even remember the previous film franchise — and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles caters to both, subtly reinventing the iconic characters for contemporary audiences while paying ample homage to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original creations. And for Turtles fans, that amounts to a little slice of Heaven.  Ben Mk

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