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Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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OK, we’ve all seen the new look of the Ninja Turtles, and if you haven’t there it is up there in the header. It’s hideous. They look really weird and totally ugly. That doesn’t change in this movie. We’re just all going to have to live with it (unless the movie flops and we don’t get a direct sequel). Thanks to that I won’t be discussing their look anymore. It just is.

How does one reboot a franchise that’s already been rebooted repeatedly in multiple formats. There’s one key factor that makes the Ninja Turtles work. It isn’t the ninja factor or the mutant turtle factor or the teenage factor. What makes it work is that the turtles are actually interesting characters with a family dynamic that always pays off. Rewatch the original live action film. It’s fun, but it’s also a fantastic movie because they treat the turtles as real characters and when that’s done it’s easy to see why the franchise is eternal.

Of course a film produced by Michael Bay doesn’t exactly hint at strong character development, does it?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Rated: PG-13
Release Date: August 8, 2014 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles once again starts the franchise over, which is a bit ludicrous considering there is hardly a person on earth who doesn’t know that four turtles named after Renaissance painters (Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo) are dosed in some ooze that turns them into mutants. They’re trained by Splinter, a giant rat, who was also doused in it, in the ways of the ninja. April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a reporter, is the first human to discover them and works alongside to help defend the city from The Shredder and his evil ninjas, the Foot Clan.

The new movie does very little to change this except to switch around the cause of the ooze spilling on the turtles and tying O’Neil into their origins a bit more. Despite re-introducing the turtles being almost entirely unnecessary the film does it once again and brings in Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) for some reason as O’Neil’s sidekick. The plot is basically the turtles fighting shredder, but it takes half the movie to get to it. Unfortunately the first half of the film is the Apirl O’Neil show and it is a pretty boring/annoying show. What they seem to be doing is trying to build up to the reveal of the turtles, but there is no build up because we all know what they look like and who they are. It’s even more annoying because while the characters of the turtles are actually really interesting, especially Leonardo and Raphael’s headbutting, O’Neil is not. The character is incredibly annoying and underdeveloped despite having half the movie to herself.

However, once the movie ditches O’Neil and actually becomes about the turtles it’s surprisingly good. Despite the turtles looking like ass the movie maintains the nature of their characters, and that’s always what has made them work. Donatello is made a bit nerdier than ever, but it works to make him a more defined character and Michelangelo is nailed as the comedic relief. Leo and Raph don’t have quite enough time to really turn into the characters they should be, but that’s because of the wasted time on April in the first half of the film. If we’re going to get sequels it’s a good sign that once we start seeing the turtles as characters the movie becomes immeasurably more enjoyable.

What else works is the action. Despite director Jonathan Liebesman having a track record worse than almost any current Hollywood director he actually pieces together some really impressive action this time around. It may be some of the best of the summer. It works with the uniqueness of having giant turtles as your action stars and pulls together some impressive fights. The snow scene shown off in the trailers is especially impressive and damn near worth the price of admission in and of itself. The fights work well too, despite the fact that they needlessly turn Shredder into a giant robot, knife-throwing thing that’s possibly dumber than the film’s needless focus on O’Neil. Shredder, this badass, evil ninja leader, is turned into wrote copy of Wolverine.

The robot Shredder points to the real issue with the first half of the film. Like an empty, robotic suit there’s a serious lack of soul. The turtles don’t seem like a family since we barely see them and when Splinter first comes on screen there’s almost no actual connections. It’s all forgivable, however, since the film finally pulls it together and starts delivering through the interaction of the turtles as four brothers. It’s just too bad that producer Michael Bay makes the same mistake he does with Transformers and ignores the interesting characters to instead focus on the humans for the first half of the movie. The fun is still there, but the soul doesn’t arrive until later in the film.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a beloved childhood franchise for nearly three generations of children now. That puts a lot of pressure on a movie like this. There’s a love and passion there for the characters, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that the movie ignores them for so long. Thankfully, Ninja Turtles is fun enough and has good enough action to make up for its (literal) character flaws. When the movie finally does decide to deliver the turtles we came to see it does it well. I just wish they remembered who the movie was named after sooner.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.