Towards the end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the four titular turtles - Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michaelangelo - are standing in an elevator, winded from their previous fights. They’re taking the elevator to the roof of a building to have a climactic battle with Shredder, and as they stand in silence Mikey begins tapping his nunchucks. He finds a beat and his brothers join in, one by one. They begin beatboxing and swaying. For a moment they’re in sync as a quartet of kids having fun, and then the elevator doors open and they burst out ready to fight.
That’s the best scene in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s one of the rare moments where the movie gets its varied tones - a little cartoony and a lot gritty action - right, and it’s one of the only times when the personalities of the turtles come through in anything other than overdubbed, disconnected one-liners recorded in a studio months after the action was shot. The turtles beatboxing in an elevator is just about the only moment in this film I liked.
One thing I will say for TMNT is that it’s fast; the movie hits the ground running and just sprints along, only stopping to allow characters to deliver tedious and poorly written pages of exposition. That exposition is vital because the movie assumes you’re absolutely stupid, andto that end it opens with an animated sequence in which all of the information we are about to learn about the turtles is given in voice-over by Splinter, the rat sensei.
But the movie really proves it thinks you’re stupid by being so absolutely generic. This is a movie as a widget, complete with a bombastic score that feels like it was ported in from some other random superhero movie. There are three credited screenwriters adapting decades worth of material, but all they’ve managed to do is create a MadLibs style superhero blockbuster, with each interchangeable beat and set piece placed into a skeletal structure that could support any characters in any story. You’ll buy a ticket to this anonymous garbage, says Platinum Dunes, and you’ll be happy we’ve attached the names of beloved franchise characters to it.
The few times the movie does get specific it’s disastrous. This new version needlessly rewrites the origins of the turtles so that they were the childhood pets of April O’Neil and they got their mutation from her father. And it also turns out that the evil Foot clan and Shredder are indirectly responsible for her dad’s death (VERY indirectly. In the film O’Neil’s dad, learning his research will be put to evil use, torches his lab… with himself and his daughter inside of it. What an idiot). But in case all of this wasn’t claustrophobic enough, it turns out that the turtles’ blood contains some traces of the mutagen that made them, which Shredder wants for… well, honestly for reasons that aren’t exactly crystal clear, but they have to do with a disease he’s trying to unleash on New York City for blackmail or something. The movie makes some stabs at explaining it, but they’re contradictory and don’t make sense within the film itself (to be fair the movie seems to be the victim of big reshoots; while we see how April’s dad dies baddie Eric Sachs (William Fichtner, not playing Shredder as we all thought) says he shot the guy to death, which just isn’t true - but may have been true in a previous version of the film).
Nobody involved in the making of this movie cared if the details made sense. They didn’t care about anything at all, from the horrific nightmare look of the CG characters (we’ve talked about how gross the turtles look ad infinitum, but let’s take a moment to note that Splinter is fucking repulsive as well) to the alternately dingy and bland set designs to the fact that characters have arcs that seem to occur totally off-screen. Raphael and Leonardo bicker throughout the film until the end when, for no reason that is supported by onscreen actions or dialogue, Raphael has a change of heart about his brother. How little did they care? There’s a record scratch sound effect at one point in the film.
The movie gets the personalities of the four turtles basically correct, but how could it not? As presented in cartoons and the previous films the quartet are broad caricatures; only Raphael ever ends up having any depth and, as is the case in this movie, that usually just translates into being moody and dark and angry. But the turtles end up crowded out of their own picture, sidelined by April O’Neil, who takes center stage.
It’s weird; I like the idea of the female character getting more to do, but the movie’s title is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Coming into the story through her POV makes a bit of sense (the movie, for some reason, plays the turtles as a reveal) but staying there? All the way through the last scene of the film? I don’t get it. We don’t need a human surrogate to get into this world. The four brothers are who we paid to see, not April, even if Megan Fox is better in the role than most will admit (and by better I mean perfectly serviceable and not getting in the way of anything). And don’t get me started on the idea that the script would have April driven by the desire to become a serious reporter and then drop that halfway through without even allowing her a moment to decide to keep the turtles a secret.
Jesus, this script was terrible.
And so is everything else! The film is an agonizing experience, leavened only by the occasionally disorienting nature of the CGI rollercoaster scenes. This is one of those movies where there are a bunch of sequences where an untethered digital camera just swings and loops wildly around a bunch of digital characters as they slip and slide and digitally jump around with no regards for any concepts of the physical laws of nature or the cinematic laws of what makes for actually interesting action sequences. Every now and again the digital camera gets more locked down, imitating a handheld style as two profoundly digital characters engage in a fist fight; this movie’s version of Shredder, a guy in a robotic suit of ludicrously over-knifed armor, is essentially a video game boss who looks like he’s still in a video game. I guess the kids today like this shit.
That’s the one caveat I will make about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: it’s for kids. From its shitty plotting to its fart jokes to its one-liners that feel like they’re coming from a talking toy as opposed to a character, this is a movie designed to pacify a nine year old. It’s an assault of noise and stupidity that exists for the parent who doesn’t want to give their kid another dose of ADD medication but wants them to shut the fuck up.
Here’s the thing: a kid’s movie doesn’t have to be a bad movie. I don’t begrudge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the bad fart joke or the slapstick bits of action that will probably have too-old fans of the franchise up in arms. I just wish that this film had been able to realize its mixed tone and had succeeded with the characters. I wish Raph and Leo’s relationship had played out on screen. I wish Mikey and Donny had character arcs (or in Donny’s case more or less anything to do other than say he hacked the gibson). I wish that someone had looked at this movie as anything other than an opportunity to sell toys and create a branding partnership with Pizza Hut. What if anyone involved in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had given a shit?
I mean, it probably still would have been bad. This one feels a little hopeless from the start. Maybe somebody can do better when they reboot this thing again in ten years.