TMNT is shallow popcorn entertainment – but within the spectrum of reboots and remakes, it falls on the safe side of honorable.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) takes us into modern-day NYC, where a militant group called The Foot Clan has been terrorizing the city. Intrepid reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) has tried tirelessly to break out of reporting fluff news pieces – and in her eyes, the Foot Clan story is the perfect way to do that.
However, as April begins tracking The Foot, she soon becomes aware that a group of mysterious vigilantes have been terrorizing the terrorists. Determined to crack the story, April goes deeper down the rabbit hole of her investigation, but what she finds down there (both literally and figuratively) is far from mere rabbits, and the discovery changes her life forever – past, present and future.
A beloved and iconic franchise stretching from the 1980s into present day, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returns to the big screen riding a wave of fan nostalgia. The final product – by way of Battle Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman – is just that: “product.” But while it may be a shallow popcorn movie experience, it’s also not the disaster that many were expecting – and even succeeds in its most important goal: selling us on the zany, bantering, butt-kicking mutant, turtle, ninja teenagers.
On a directorial front, TMNT is a composite of filmmaking styles. There is much borrowing from and/or homage to recent superhero films and genre blockbusters (the Nolan Batman Trilogy and Michael Bay Transformers franchise, most notably), which are then combined with Liebesman’s signature close-up frenetic action framing. It does, at times, feel like a mishmash of stylistic ideas – but overall, this is probably the best blockbuster film the director has crafted – and his love for the TMNT brand is apparent in both the presentation of the material, and the many visual odes and Easter eggs to various iterations of the franchise (both on the page as well as the big and small screens).
The actual visual effects are pretty polished as well – most notably in the motion-capture characters of the four ninja turtles. “Purists” can complain about nostrils all the want, but Liebesman and his army of digital effects artists do pull off the impossible and create four mutant creatures that feel both authentic and believable enough in a real-world setting, and (thanks to some soulful infusion from mo-cap actors) capture the personalities of the four turtles in iconic yet modernized fashion. 3D isn’t a must in this case, but for those who want to invest, several key action sequences in the film will be worth your while.
Script credits go to Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (Mission: Impossible 4), along with Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman). Together, the trio re-imagine TMNT lore in a way that hardcore fans will recognize as a composite of various pieces plucked from the TV, movie and comic book adaptations that have existed over the years. In fact, for those worried that this movie is inauthentic, it’s ironically the opposite: this film is heavy with authenticity and reverence for the source material, there’s just so many versions of said material that only true experts will be able to recognize it all.
However, while the mythos, irreverence, humor, fun (and even some of the original satire) of TMNT may have been successfully translated from the source material to this movie, the actual narrative arc of the film is paper-thin and lacks any depth at all on both the character and thematic levels. Granted, this is a movie aimed at a younger crowd with no high-brow or intellectual illusions about its far-out premise; but in the age of Pixar and movies like Frozen or Super 8, it’s a cop-out to claim that juvenile-minded films can’t have thematic or emotional weight. Even the 1990 TMNT live-action movie found a way to incorporate a more serious story about family into its whacky ninja turtle hijinks – with a more restrictive rating, to boot (PG, as opposed to the “edgier” PG-13 version we have now). And when you incorporate the hokey, cartoonish dialogue that permeates much of the script, it becomes apparent that TMNT‘s weak point is on paper, more so than film.
To be fair, there is a sense that early on the script was meant to build toward more intricate threads of character and thematic development; but once the fists start flying around the middle of the second act, the film settles into a hollow progression of point-to-point action set pieces tinged with juvenile humor, leaving all that early potential for rich story behind. The second half of TMNT is your now-standard video game-style CGI action with a simple “good guys stop bad buys” conflict – and it all looks good, even if it isn’t that engaging or fun. By the end, you find yourself in a situation where you have four great characters who have been successfully (if just barely) sold by their cinematic vehicle, with a genuine a hope that they get something more compelling to do in a future installment.
Credit due to the five mo-cap actors – Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher and Danny Woodburn – and the many digital effects gurus who all collaborated to create the mo-cap turtles and Master Splinter. All debates aside, for those who never got into this franchise previously, this movie is a faithful adaptation of the characters, with new flourishes that help make them more distinct and personable than ever. (Seriously, colored masks and differing weapons are nice, but actual aesthetic and behavioral differences turn out to be even better.) Each of the turtles shines in some way or another; although Master Splinter is somewhat gross (creating a realistic humanoid rat turns out to be more curse than blessing), and it is ironically the characters with the big celebrity voices (Tony Shalhoub for Splinter; Johnny Knoxville for Leonardo) who tend to be the flattest and least interesting out of the bunch. Go figure.
While the villains are not all that deep or interesting, a lot of early worry about how this movie would incorporate iconic TMNT antagonists turns out to be unfounded. William Fichtner is (as usual) a great character actor to play a subtle but menacing antagonist – and it is surprisingly straightforward in the film that The Shredder (played by Tohoru Masamune) is a separate villain altogether – one that hews much closer to the dark and violent depiction of the villain from the original TMNT comics. Megan Fox manages to carry the opening act with more gusto than usual (until thankfully handing things off to her CGI co-stars), while actors like Whoopi Goldberg, Will Arnett, Abby Elliott and Minae Noji are FAR less annoying or flat than the bit human characters you find in your average Bay Transformers film.
In the end, TMNT reflects many of the criticisms now inherent in just about any Platinum Dunes remake (polished and prettier, but lacking the depth, substance and fun of the original) – but as with many of those same remakes, that doesn’t qualify it as a terrible movie. TMNT is shallow popcorn entertainment – but within the spectrum of reboots and remake, it falls on the safe side of honorable. There is still a place in this world for those heroes in a half-shell – if the world (and the high walls of fan nostalgia) ever give them another chance to prove it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now playing in theaters. It is 101 minutes long, and is rated Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Want to hear the Screen Rant Editors have a more in-depth of review and discussion of the film? Then be sure to tune into our TMNT episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.