A note: This is the second in the Anti-Monitor series, where it’s believed that some films are best reviewed with the utmost incredulity. This week, Matt Fleming and myself banter back and forth over the latest piece of filmic incoherence, director Jonathan Liebesman’s re-boot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We discuss the acting ability of, um, Megan Fox, reminisce longingly about the 1990 original film, and sheepishly accept product placement as a given. As always, be wary of spoilers throughout, and please enjoy.
DR: That… was less than I expected. And somehow… more?
Matt: It was a very effective commercial for Pizza Hut, Skype, and Orange Crush soda, that occasionally featured some kinda cool Turtle action. It beat expectations, but only because my expectations were in the abyss.
DR: There are moments – brief, fleeting moments of a Turtle film that most fans could get behind – but in retrospect, they feel more like a manipulation. A pandering fan service concocted out of spite. Like Michael Bay is supposed to be in the background as a producer, but you feel his shitty fingers all over this. Like when Megan Fox retorts from Will Arnett’s “are they aliens?” and Fox is all, “no. That would be stupid.” Did the filmmakers want to make a movie fans would enjoy, or did they make the film because they were contractually obligated to? Nothing in this movie feels spirited. Nothing feels fun.
Matt: The Turtles almost get to have fun, and it would service this movie to follow that lead. This is kids’ entertainment, and these turtles are teens, so let them have fun. If the movie had spent 30% more time with the actual titular Turtles, it could have been so much better. Also, dealing with a property that has already lived, developed, and breathed for thirty years, I expect pandering. I don’t think it actually is pandering when the comics-and-cartoons’ film equivalents behave like the characters we, and a new generation, already know and love. I wanted to hear “I love being a turtle!”
DR: Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to have fun too. I didn’t want to walk into this movie with a ‘tude about the whole thing, it’s just that Michael Bay has figuratively beaten most of the joy from my life.
Matt: At least what little joy Brett Ratner left in you after last week. One of Michael Bay’s problems is his errant belief that, because some people find her attractive, Megan Fox is an actress.
DR: It’s such a strange thing that in 2014, we’re – heh – shelling out cash to see a Megan Fox-starring flick. I thought Bay and Fox hated each other?
Matt: Nobody hates money, and this is a bankable franchise that only needs insistent kids on summer break and parents with a little extra scratch to succeed. I’m sure it was pitched to her as a launching pad for her somewhat stifled post-Transformers career. Unfortunately, she makes a terrible April O’Neil, and the script is bad enough without it being “acted” by Megan Fox.
DR: I find her so repugnant that I spent most of the movie frowning. But that’s not really the major problem here, is it? I mean, yes, Megan Fox is in the movie quite a bit, but that’s mostly because the film spends the majority of its focus on April O’Neil’s character. The movie is really, when you boil it down, about her. We learn only so much about the Turtles by the end of the movie, and it’s nowhere near enough, is it?
Matt: Nope. They try too hard to tie April into the Turtles’ origins, like we wouldn’t care about her enough if she just found and befriended them. Modern reboots are way too focused on convoluted origins (I’m looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man), and they lose sight of the development of the character with their name on the marquee. There are brief glimpses of the real heart behind this band of brothers, but the script never lets them go “full Turtle.”
DR: “Full Turtle.” I like that. That’s just one out of 101 minutes, though. And the sequence – where Splinter explains his and the Turtles’ growth as individuals and later, full-blown ninjas – is easily the most entertaining of the whole film. I was sitting there thinking to myself, “yes! Yes! You’re actually doing it! This is what I want out of my Turtles movie!” And then they go and shove Whoopi Goldberg in my face.
Matt: She was unnecessary, Will Arnett’s comic relief felt forced at times, and there wasn’t really enough Foot Clan. It’s very easy to make a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: give the turtles their appropriate personality traits, give the audience a real sense of their familial relationships with each other and Master Splinter, let them fight the Foot, and big bad fight with Shredder at the end. Throw in the Pizza Hut (I don’t even care about this product crossover, because pizza is so important in the Turtle-lore), and that’s a wrap. See what I just did there? I wrote a better Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than this one. Focus on what the audience wants and not on making it all gritty.
DR: You did it. Precisely how it should have been done. And I’m tired of saying it, but: WE ALREADY HAVE A GRIM AND GRITTY TURTLE MOVIE. It was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it came out in 1990. Fucking love that movie, to this very day. It had a lived-in grime all over it that felt authentic, characters that were a notch above the generic brand, four fucking Turtles that cared about each other unconditionally, and YOU FELT IT. AND: it had Elias Koteas as Casey Jones.
Matt: And it wasn’t all shaky and hard to follow. Also, the 3D was utilized pretty sparingly here, which is a disappointment when imagining how much more the Turtles could have shown off skills against the Foot Clan. So much of this movie is “almost.”
DR: Let’s talk about the action for a minute. There are places where it is very effective, and kinda fucking rad – like the Second Act Shredder/Splinter throw-down – and then there are places where it’s a loud, stuttering, chaotic mess – like the avalanche sequence. (Because there are so many mountains outside of Manhattan.) The film never quite decides what kind of action movie it wants to be: a kung-fu movie, or a Michael Bay actioner.
Matt: Yeah, that was weird. The action in a Turtle movie should be more fight-oriented, but Michael Bay can’t do anything without some kind of excuse to ruin nature on a grand scale. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief from great heights, but there’s no way that avalanche doesn’t end in someone dying. Take this occasion to kill Will Arnett’s Vern.
DR: Yeah, and when did Pretty Camera Boy Vern get his commercial driver’s license?
Matt: Vern was inserted as part comic relief and part “someone to drive April around.” That mustard and parmesan sandwich bit was funny, but only because it was stupid and out of place. Any auxiliary characters in this movie are poor devices for exposition, and that’s too bad. Lazy writing and half-baked characters coupled with misplaced action sequences and a disregard for source material. Sounds like a familiar formula, eh?
DR: You’re only right. A perfect example: This movie had the balls to cast William Fichtner as the Shredder – taking the original name of Oroku Saki and turning it into the white-washed Eric Sacks – and then kneejerked from the instant internet backlash and quickly turned it around by shoehorning in some faceless, nameless Japanese Shredder, thinking that would be enough appease us. They wrapped shooting this thing in August of LAST YEAR. They had a year to zip this thing up, and they still fumbled.
Matt: The first script was written by the duo tasked with Beverly Hills Cop 4, and retooled by the screenwriter of Snow White And The Huntsman. I’m just gonna leave that sentence right there for you, buddy.
DR: Heh. I know how much you love Snow White And The Huntsman. And recognizing that we were THIS CLOSE to the movie being a Brett Ratner vehicle, I’m not surprised by the former. But like you said earlier: it’s not difficult to put together a decent movie about these Ninja Turtles, but given the history of these characters in the various mediums in which they’ve been featured, this is very far from the worst Turtle-related thing I’ve ever seen. But look at our heroes-in-a-half-shell. Just look at them. It’s like the art department were given only the broad strokes of each character and festooned them with the obvious accessories: Michelangelo has a jet-powered skateboard (which kinda ruled), Donatello is decked out in Ghostbusters tech (looking very much like Ray Stantz with that proton-pack and goggles), Raphael with scars on his face and busted teeth, and Leonardo adorned in stoic samurai-gear. All too easy.
Matt: I actually liked the look of the Turtles! After getting over the shape of their heads, you start to notice the nuances. They’re brothers, but they aren’t identical. The details were awesome, and their accessories did, in fact, rule. Aside from the shaky parts, this is a pretty looking movie, and the Turtles look great. But it gets carried away with Shredder and Splinter. You mentioned (on the walk home) that Shredder is overdone, and I think Splinter was a touch on the cartoonish side. What do you think?
DR: Splinter looked too fake to be taken seriously. And when he takes on Shredder, he stands perfectly upright before fighting, which make Splinter appear to be seven feet tall. That made Splinter’s look feel kinda rushed, like the filmmakers weren’t too sure how far to take the character into cartoon territory. But when any of the Turtles or Splinter stood next to Megan Fox, Megan Fox became the most real thing on the screen, which is damned-near impossible. The CGI wasn’t rendered nearly enough. And Shredder looked like the Super-Shredder from the end of Secret Of The Ooze, but with some Michael Bay all over him.
Matt: It’s hard to believe that this could have been a worse movie. It isn’t good, but it is not completely terrible. If they had expanded on the visuals and used the script from 1990, hired different actors, this could have been downright okay!
DR: But that’s not the world we live in, now is it?
Matt: No. I don’t understand why Nickelodeon felt the need to partner up with Michael Bay; there are producers out there who could have steered this in a better direction. There are superfluous explosions in this movie that feel like a joke. I accept that properties are being rebooted, but can we at least get a little more effort? That would be cool.
DR: Chevy Nova, Birdy.
ANTI-MONITOR – MATT: The Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reveals that character content beloved by many has the ability to transcend much of the hubris and entanglement of the typical Hollywood reboot, but is ultimately not enough to get the job done. There are probably people involved in this production who care about the source material, but there are more who care about the bottom line. Nickelodeon needs to make a big TMNT movie, one that appeals to kids, whose parents will buy them a lot of toys and Pizza Hut. How many kids are going to seek out a can of Orange Crush in the coming weeks? Enough for Michael Bay to say the hell with our nostalgia.
If given more of a chance (through a thoughtful story and well-crafted script), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could be a fantastic $125-million-dollar film that appeals to fans young and old. Unfortunately, corners are cut and what we get is, I’d suppose, the best we can hope for, by today’s standards. Any Ninja Turtle movie that feels too serious for our heroes-in-a-half-shell to mutter two paltry “cowabungas” misses the point. These characters are a fun, well-trained family of Mutant Ninjas, and once the audience accepts that conceit, the right filmmakers could have a great time. We don’t need to ground this into reality. We need to love being turtles.
ANTI-MONITOR – JARROD: It’s not hopelessly, painfully bad, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is definitely weighed down by the heavy hand of its executive producer, Michael Bay. It’s a film that wants to be so many different things for so many different people, becoming an incoherent mess that never embraces the spirit that has made this franchise so popular for almost thirty years. All the elements exist – ninjutsu, brotherhood, pizza – and somehow Jonathan Liebesman still can’t streamline a story about four mutant turtles into something that vaguely resembles fun.
It’s a movie that boasts Ninja Turtles and refuses to utilize them. It pads the majority of the running time with the pouty incredulity of Megan Fox, who is nowhere near the actor – or even the suitable presence – this movie needs to anchor the at-times too rambunctious action sequences or cornball dramatics. What’s left is a sloppily derivative film that borrows from other lousy, derivative films. (Its closest thematic relative is easily 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man.) This film needs to trust in its marquee stars – not the B-listers it acquired, but the A-list anthropomorphic reptiles that have dazzled kids for a generation. It’s not too much to ask for a little more substance from our Turtles, especially when we remember that fifteen years ago, we had precisely that.
ANTI-MONITOR CONSENSUS: When you are faced with the inevitability of this film, remember that there are few, precious days left to our summer. Don’t squander a minute of it with this dreck.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.