Saturday, August 9, 2014

Half-Shell Retrospective: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Megan Fox, William Fichtner, Will Arnett, Johnny Knoxville, Whoopie Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub, Abby Elliot, Minae Noji, Tohoru Masamune
Rated: PG-13

So you're...Ninja Mutant Turtle Teenagers?
                ~April O'Neil

Platinum Dunes' restart of the theatrical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise isn't close to a perfect movie by any means and its a little shallow, but it manages to still be a thrilling fun time.  I was willing to forgive it of some of its shortcomings because when this all boils down, its a kids' movie and I am many years removed from being the target audience.  A lot of critics have come at the film sais out, but I think they're overlooking the age factor who this movie is pretty much gunning for even if it does have the PG-13 rating attached to it.  Its a film some of the geek-centric writers seem to have decided they didn't like before going, bowing out of enjoyment based merely on the rather fine turtle design.  Anyway, its time for my thoughts.
On the major plus side of things, while they may have altered the Turtles' origin story, themselves as characters this movie has nailed.  Michaelangelo of course steals the show with his gags, but he's not completely out of control either.  Of all the the Ninja Turtle movies, I think this film may have really got Donatello right most of all.  He's actually given stuff to do, and seems to be more focused than he ever has been in a film.  While Johnny Knoxville seemed an odd choice for Leonardo, it actually works and its a really unique take on the character.  And Raphael, well, is Raphael.  I really like his rough and rugged design, almost scary looking at times.  
But alas, as you may have heard already, this really isn't the Turtles' movie.  Its April O'Neil's.  This basically follows the Michael Bay Transformer's approach where the Turtles are secondary characters to a human character's story.  While people seem shocked by this, I'll remind you, from the 80's cartoon to the 90s film we have always been introduced to the Ninja Turtles through the eyes and experience of April O'Neil.  A big fanboy controversy came about in casting for her (always casting) as Megan Fox probably wasn't on anyone's list.  Fear not though, she's not great, but she's easily passable in what me be the best performance I've ever seen her give.  A lot of this movie falls on her, but she's also given a lift by sharing scenes with the likes of William Fichtner and Will Arnett (who's pretty great in this movie himself).  I actually have to give Fox some credit too as she seemed to mesh in and really have a good chemistry with the Turtles when she was on screen with them.
Jonathan Liebesman puts together some really ambitious action sequences here and for the most part, they're pretty coherent (for the record, I think the 1990 film's action sequences were better).  Its highlighted by a drive/slide down a snowy mountain that is frantic, cut fast and actually works.  I'm normally not a fan of such shaky and fast cut sequences in modern films, but I thought this actually went quite well.  The Turtles also get to use their weapons in this film which is a big plus.  And another great thing is the film really demonstrates the Turtles working together as a team during action scenes and fights.  Its almost like they're a sports team with plays during them.  
Strangely, this film follows beats from the 1990 film.  There's action scenes and story points that seem to match up with that film.  Its almost like the film is taking moments from that film and trying to beef them up and make them bigger.  I wasn't expecting it to mimic that going in.  Its also got some little call backs to it if you catch them.  And speaking of callbacks, there's even a moment in the film with a line of dialogue that seems to be in response to the fanboys freaking about the rumor of the original script having the origin of the Turtles possibly be that they are extraterrestrial.
Okay, now I'll get to some of the weaker points in the film.  Splinter and Shredder.  Splinter has some really really bad dialogue in the film.  Its on the nose, expository and unnecessary.  However, while I as an adult didn't care much for it, I realize this is a kids movie and for young kids, I'm pretty sure that dialogue really works for them.  So, I'm willing to bend for that.  Now with Shredder.  With this new origin, the Shredder just becomes some monster goon.  There's no history with him and the Turtles or Splinter.  There's nothing there in the relationship.  With over 30 years of history of the Ninja Turtles, yeah, its Shredder he's THE bad guy.  But set this film aside, there's no difference between him and the Turtles than some random Foot Clan member.  Add to that, his outfit is CRAZY overdone.  Fichtner is the real villain here, and Shredder is just, well...not much there even though he gets big battles and the like.
I couldn't help but think when watching this movie is that there had to have been reshoots or a change in story somewhere.  There are some odd insert scenes and plot points that kinda don't add up.  It also feels edited in the way to hurry things along scene to scene to compensate for structural issues.  Plus its 100 minutes in a time where movies like this go for 2 hours easily.  I'd be very interested in seeing a director's or extended cut of this film to see what went missing or where they may have been trying to steer away from for the final cut.  It really does feel as if the Oroku Saki stuff may have been added later after William Fichtner was announced as the playing the Shredder and there was backlash for the race bending of the role to a white guy instead of Asian.  Who knows, maybe it was a misdirect.  
Problems aside, I had more than enough to like with this movie than not.  I hope a lot of Turtle fans that felt weary of approaching this one will come out pleased or pleasantly surprised.  Its a kids movie, so I was able to overlook some short comings and just enjoy the ride I was being taken on.  Plus, I was actually enjoying the Turtles and laughing at them.  This is no amazing movie nor the best in the series, but its decent enough and if you can take some nostalgia glasses off for a moment, you'll see that its one of the better ones.  While it very much fit the storytelling type of the Transformers films, this was a little more my cup of tea and I enjoyed it more (still haven't seen that fourth one though).  Its not one you need to be rushing to theaters to see, but don't be afraid to see it.

RATING:  3/5

NEXT TIME:  Leonardo leads, Brandon does rankings...

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