A film about four mutated, upright walking turtles and their rat trainer with tremendous fighting abilities and the capacity for speech was never going to be high art. The reason why the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book/animated TV show/film franchise has endured so long is because it was always in touch with its own silliness. Most comic books that get turned into features or TV shows have a certain degree of wish fulfilment that gets tossed aside in today’s “darker” climate in favour of “gritty, realistic reimaginings” of material that should never be taken too seriously. (I am looking squarely at you, DC Universe.)
The fact that the latest live action reboot of TMNT is able to keep that sense of silliness and goodwill instead of trying to make the heroes in half-shells into something they aren’t strikes like a breath of fresh air. It’s not trying to actively reinvent what made the turtles successful, but it also doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, either. It’s decent enough on its own terms, or at the very least as entertaining as a film about four hyperactive teenagers with ninjutsu weapons and their garishly attired female sidekick could be.
Fans have nothing to be worried about. Their childhood favourites are intact and unharmed. Intrepid and ambitious TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) finds herself ridiculed constantly by the colleagues and boss for trying to overstep her bounds as a purveyor of pop journalist by actually trying to report on a rash of attacks by the evil Foot Clan and their deadly armoured ninja master Shredder. One night she tries to capture an attack on her phone and runs across the four teenage mutant ninja vigilantes and a secret link to a shared past between the reporter and the turtles leads them into a deadly battle over the fate of New York City.
Director Jonathan Liebsaman hasn’t had the most promising career thus far, most notably helming Darkness Falls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Wrath of the Titans, and Battle Los Angeles. Thankfully, a film about ass kicking reptiles seems to play to his strengths as a craftsman, and he’s also given arguably the best (if decidedly lowbrow) material to work with. Early action sequences don’t instill a heck of a lot of faith for what’s to come – they’re murkily lit, edited into oblivion in hopes of keeping the look of the turtles under wraps for a few further seconds. But once the turtles are revealed, things are pretty smooth sailing in the action department. An extended chase sequence down a snowy mountain involving an out of control 18-wheeler and the climactic rooftop battle with Shredder are stunning sequences and worth the price of admission for those who think making the turtles CGI was a bad idea.
Director of photography Lula Carvalho (who shot the Elite Squad films) delivers and exceptionally slick and gorgeous looking landscape for the effects and actors to play within and Brian Tyler’s musical score is surprisingly memorable and beyond just serviceable. Even if most everyone else involved with the production is a well selected, if not entirely groundbreaking, hired gun, these two really help to push what’s otherwise an okay technical effort over the line into becoming something special.
The script from Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec (who previously collaborated on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Lost) and Even Daugherty (Divergent, Snow White and the Huntsman) has its ups and downs. It knows that the story doesn’t matter and that in order to try to “logically” explain the backstory of the fearsome foursome there has to be some dramatic convenience and contrivance. But outside of playing with the link between April and the boys and the mutagen being from outer space and not terrestrial (don’t worry, the turtles aren’t alieans), everything stays relatively true to the original. Much like many reboots there’s the obligatory rehashing of the origin story (which in a bit of a demerit the film does twice, once in the animated opening and once at the halfway point), but at least purists won’t have much of a reason to complain. Anything that true fans of the turtles could possibly worry about should be put to rest relatively easy.
The turtles maintain their core ideals and quirks. Leonardo still leads the pack, and is arguably the least interesting of the four. Donatello now wears coke bottle spectacles in an attempt to look nerdier, but he’s still the brains of the operation. Raphael is still the badass who wants to go solo, but unlike previous attempts to have Raph branch off from the pack, the writers here have actually found a way to make his journey make sense. Michelangelo, however, is kind of annoying and creepy. His unsubtle and almost constant ogling of April threatens to derail the fun every time he opens his mouth. At least outside of that, he’s still classic Mikey.
The humans add just enough to keep audience interest when things aren’t being beaten or blown up. Fox is a likeable and sympathetic enough lead. Will Arnett gets a few choice moments as her doofus cameraman Vern. Whoopi Goldberg shows up for a welcome extended camera as April’s flabbergasted boss, and William Fichtner does his usual scenery chewing villain act as a nefarious billionaire industrialist working with Shredder to unleash a biological weapon on the city.
Sure, you’ll probably find yourself questioning things like how the turtles had gone unseen for so long, what happened to Goldberg’s character, and where Fichtner’s villain found a snowcapped mountaintop estate so close to New York City, but just remind yourself you are watching a film about four fucking turtles named after renaissance painters beating up faceless hordes that look like rejected extras from the last Purge movie. If you buy a ticket to the new TMNT, you’ll get exactly what you would hope to get. The kids today will love it (they certainly loved it at the screening I attended) and the big kids who grew up with them can breathe a hearty sigh of relief that this reboot didn’t screw up their positive memories.
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