Do you remember that video cassette? Maybe it was your only one, or maybe it was one among dozens or even hundreds your parents bought you. But no matter how large your collection, that one was special. It was the one you watched every day. It was the one you watched twice in a row. It was the one you watched until the cassette started to slowly decline. For whatever reason, that was the one that found you when you most needed to find it, at that age when even something silly can reverberate in just the right corner of a bourgeoning emotional animal. For many people it was probably Star Wars, and for many more, a Disney animated classic. For me, though, it was something a little odder: 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
There’s something about that movie, the Turtles’ silver screen debut, which still strikes a chord. For a big-budget franchise debut, it’s weirdly slow and relaxed, devoting far more screen time to banter, character development, and odd digressions than any of today’s blockbusters, even those stretched out to three hours in length. Something in Henson’s Creature Shop was contagious, something about caring to breathe life into characters, and four-year-old me was hooked. I got the comic books; I watched the TV show; I got the games (remember Turtles in Time?); I had the action figures. To this day, a tiny plastic Donatello, complete with twirling bo staff, sits on my desk, a token to remind me that I wasn’t always a grown-up at a desk with a job and a mortgage.
Perhaps this makes me a less-than-ideal candidate to review the latest reboot (hate that word) of the franchise (hereafter TMNT14), or perhaps it makes me perfect. Whichever the case, I entered the theater with a confused bundle of anticipation and trepidation I tried to suppress equally; and in the end, it didn’t matter one bit, because TMNT14 sucked.
This is the part of the review where the reviewer summarizes the plot of the movie, but really, you guys? If you’re unfamiliar with the mythos undergirding this latest iteration of our overgrown adolescent martial-artist reptilian heroes, perhaps this movie isn’t for you. Of course, if you are familiar with the mythos, this movie also isn’t for you. It isn’t for anyone, except the latest holding company to discover it had purchased the rights to some #brand that they could attempt to monetize.
So yeah, plucky reporter April O’Neal (Megan freaking Fox) is trying to get to the bottom of a series of bold crimes committed by the Foot Clan when she stumbles on a team of vigilantes fighting back, vigilantes who happen to be, you, know, that. The thing in the title. There’s an evil plot, a wholly predictable second villain, and I can’t even continue, because it was just too stupid.
None of the characters have any motivation. Nobody reacts to anything like any real person would react to anything, ever. Will Arnett is useless and unfunny. Megan Fox is actually not awful and yet has absolutely nothing to work with, they could have cast take your pick and the role would’ve still been cardboard. The idea that New York City could be under continual siege from a well-staffed highly-organized paramilitary group, and yet life would generally go on as normal in 2014, is laughably absurd. Every plot point is facepalmingly obvious and yet inexplicable. The dastardly plot is astoundingly dumb – primarily because it’s premised on the inability of scientists to re-do science they’ve already done once you break their first science – but also because the whole thing could’ve been foiled by a 9-1-1 call that nobody ever makes. Shredder is called ‘Shredder’ before he gets his trademark spiky suit. He also has no motivation at all. None. Really.
Enough of the specific plot points are clearly lifted from the 1990 original to suggest that the people who made this watched it, which makes it even more disappointing to realize that nobody involved in making this thing understood the appeal of the Ninja Turtles or cared enough to bother trying to understand. Splinter and Shredder have no prior relationship, sucking the oxygen out of key dramatic points and corrupting the Vader/Obi-Wan dynamic. The Turtles themselves are reduced to Wikipedia summaries of their characters, without any of the banter or group dynamics that made them fun, or even a thoughtful gesture towards anything but “Hey kids still buy action figures, right?”
The action scenes, with maybe one brief exception, are wholly lacking in creativity or energy. Since everything is mediocre CGI anyway, nothing ever feels like anything’s at stake, and mostly you feel like you’re watching someone else play a bad video game. There is no development, no arc, no care, and (with the exception of a canny reference to Usagi Yojimbo) nothing to suggest that anyone who made this movie gave a shit about anything except separating fools from their money. Even the product placement is as insulting as it is bizarre – at a key moment a Nokia phone, whose screen-time must have cost a decent fistful of Euros, fails to work. The movie is in 3D for literally no other reason than to wedge in additional gimmick and justify pilfering a few more dollars from the suckers.
The most disappointing thing about TMNT14 is just how lazy and perfunctory it is. The Ninja Turtles are, fundamentally, a pretty weird thing to have come up with in the first place, and yet they resonated. They were young, awkward, and doomed never to have a place in a world they nonetheless risk their lives to defend. They had a place in the cultural ecosystem of the late 80’s and 90’s when most American cities still felt threatening and dangerous, and it felt natural that even our defenders would be alien, immature sewer-dwellers. There is, I assure you, a thoughtful and inventive way to bring these characters into our new age in a way that engages with the way we live now. Instead, we got a turtle soup of copypasta. The worst part about TMNT14 isn’t that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not even trying, and betting we’ll swipe our credit cards anyway.