Before I get into this review, I want to establish that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a good movie. I’m going to say some confusing things in the next few paragraphs, but it must go on record early that this movie stinks. The script is almost entirely incoherent, and the female characters are barely present. But – and this is very difficult for me to say – I kind of liked it.
That’s a powerful statement, I know, so before gravity starts reversing and we all start drifting into space, let me clarify. I didn’t go into this movie with a whole lot of TMNT history weighing me down. The original cartoon was just before my time, and I have only vague memories of the 90’s films. Sure, I inherited a bunch of cool toys and I enjoy being known among my friends as a Raphael type (cool, but rude), but as far as fandoms go – the Turtles are very low on the list.
So I’m not bringing too much nostalgic baggage into this experience. The new movie – directed by Darkness Falls and Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman – follows the standard tale of four genetically altered turtles who are taught martial arts by a rat and befriended by intrepid reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox – funny, she doesn’t look Irish). But the screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty does futz with the origin a little. Turns out Leonardo (motion-capture performed by Pete Ploszek, but voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) were experimented on by April’s father when she was a little girl. April herself saved the Turtles and their sensei Splinter (performed by Danny Woodburn, and voiced by Tony Shalhoub), depositing them in a sewer where they learned karate. Look guys, it’s already a really dumb premise – I don’t care if they streamline it a little bit.
So the bad guys – the Foot Clan, you remember them – want the serum that still runs through the Turtles’ veins so they can murder the world or something. Whatever. Like I said, the script is not one of the film’s triumphs, but the action sequences that it leads to are. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles keeps the action small – only the top of one building gets destroyed, which you don’t expect from a Michael Bay production. The fights are between individuals, as one might expect from ninjas, but when there is collateral damage such as falling debris, it actually gets acknowledged. Movies like Man of Steel or Transformers happily ignore the fact that hundreds of people are dying in the background of the focal conflict, but this movie at least owns up to the fact that it is a possibility. To be honest I would have enjoyed a little more action besides a few fights and one cool chase scene down the side of some random mountain adjacent to New York City.
In the end, though, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘s greatest strength is the titular quartet. They act their age, which is so refreshing in an age of gritty reboots. Fisher’s Michelangelo is easily the best characterization, but even Raphael – the grittiest of the bunch – is capable of having fun (I’m thinking specifically of an enjoyable moment in an elevator near the film’s conclusion). I wasn’t exactly stoked to see the guy who played Aquaman on Smallville take on the best member of the team, but Ritchson actually brings some nuance to the role. And as all hell seems to be breaking loose, I have to admit that Raphael had me a little choked up.
That’s not even a joke. I legitimately got emotional as Raphael delivers a heartfelt speech to his brothers. It was a real moment that connected with me. A moment that was immediately undermined by an honest-to-god record scratch sound effect. There’s not even a turntable anywhere in the movie! That right there is indicative of the fact that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really is bad, regardless of my level of enjoyment. And that’s okay. After all, this is a movie that wastes an incredible talent like Will Arnett on a role that exists solely to hit on Megan Fox.
No one will argue that this was the pinnacle of the franchise when all is said and done, but it’s enjoyable. I was just in the exact right mindset for the screening. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a movie I ever want to see again, as I’m sure the many, many problems will be much less forgivable on a rewatch, but it is a fine piece of entertainment if you’re not looking for anything of substance. I mean, if that’s what you want go watch Boyhood or something, though Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did make me well up more than that one did. So I guess that means it’s a better movie. That’s how this whole thing works, right?