Last week, Marvel and director James Gunn released Guardians of the Galaxy, a big, weird blockbuster that showed reverence to a group of comic book characters few people had even heard of outside of its core fanbase. This weekend, Platinum Dunes and director Jonathan Liebesman are releasing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film that takes a franchise beloved by millions of multi-generational fans around the world and completely saps it of any purity those fans might be interested in watching. It’s like getting excited for a school trip, only to find out that it’s just to the paper mill, and that they’re shitting all over your family and friends in a back room.
Believe it or not, the downfall is imminent from the very first seconds of the movie, with an introduction full of narrated exposition set over a series of motion comic-style animated still frames. As the heroes’ CGI weapons flashed across the screen over a black backdrop, I had to question why Liebesman couldn’t just record a real sword going through a real fruit, or real nunchuks being spun around. One could say, “It’s an homage to the comic book and animated beginnings,” and that someone might very well be right, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is a terrible way to start any kind of movie.
From there, we get right into the sad existence of April O’Neil, whose main goal in life is getting that “one big story” that will put her on the top of the network news food chain. Unfortunately, it’s just trampoline stories and getting looked over by her boss, played by Whoopi Goldberg in a career low role. Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) is interested in driving her to do whatever she wants, so long as he gets to slip in a mildly flirtatious comment every two minutes. But April doesn’t need anyone to help her nail the biggest scoop of her career: a vigilante group composed of four Ninja Mutant Turtles who are also Teenagers, and who are trying to put a stop to the evil masked Foot Clan, a semi-terrorist group led by the scar-faced Shredder. (Gone are the martial artist Foot soldiers of past Ninja Turtle movies, replaced by faceless gunmen.) So far, so terrible, especially April.
Meet the “heroes.” There’s Leonardo, performance-capped by Pete Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville. He’s the, uh, one that gets into mild tiffs with the temperamental and Wahlbergian Raphael (Alan Ritchson) over who’s in charge; not that it matters, since this foursome doesn’t really work under leadership. Donatello (Jeremy Howard) has a few gadgets, like his headset that barely does anything, but he never gets around to doing anything smart. And then there’s Michelangelo, who has two jokes about a viral video and then spends the rest of the movie tossing an uncomfortable amount of lurid come-on lines in April’s direction. It’s like the “Can we keep her?” line from the first movie, strapped into a condom and shoved into a high schooler’s wallet. In that sense, Michelangelo is at least the most like a teenage male of the four.
The plot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t matter, but is still worth sighing at for a few minutes. It involves the Turtles’ blood (or ooze or mutagen or fancyjuice) being used in a plot to poison New York City, which itself involves the giant, needle-shaped top of a skyscraper. It’s an outdated Bond-villain plot in that way, as are the extended explanations behind everyone and everything in this movie, delivered with equal amounts of ennui by Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), wealthy scientist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), and Splinter, performance-capped by Danny Woodburn and voiced by Tony Shalhoub. Also, sometimes Shredder speaks Japanese and sometimes he just sticks with English. The sign of a true homicidal maniac!
The dead-in-the-sewer-water script from Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty contains many references to other comic book staples, such as Superman, Batman, and superheroes in general. But the only time the Turtles are doing any really heroic acts is when they’re trying to stay hidden from public view in the beginning. The action sequences in this movie are slight, and the CGI is layered so heavily on top of other CGI that nothing has any real-world presence. Even in a battle with the magnetic-blade-throwing Shredder, which should be a truly epic ordeal, the action is poorly thought-out and ends up creating too much destruction and presumed off-screen death for this to be a real heroic victory for any green mutants involved.
It can’t all be so depressingly non-bodacious, right? Depends on how you feel about beat-boxing scenes inside of elevators. There is humor to be found. I enjoy Will Arnett, so I’m going to laugh at him in just about anything, regardless of the garbage he’s surrounded by. However, every legitimate chuckle is followed by a WTF guffaw, such as the scene where April opens up her Internet browser and searchers for “Vigilante news in New York.” There are a couple of “cool shot!” moments sprinkled throughout, and I applaud the few times Liebesman had the wherewithal to shoot scenes from a distance, especially during the final battle. Still, never have I wished for a Vanilla Ice cameo so intensely.
There’s no mystery about my feelings for this movie, but that doesn’t mean I want to be done with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe. After all, none of this franchise’s iterations in film, TV, or video games have been exactly like the ones that came before it, so there’s a better chance than ever that the next flick will be the greatest thing since sliced-bread pizza. But first they need to scrub all the skuzziness off of this thing, stick a more grounded storyline in it, and stop sweeping the catchphrases under the rug. I sincerely kept waiting for one of them to say, “I really fucking loathe being a turtle!” just to complete the acid rainstorm on my nostalgia.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is in theaters now. See it if you dare.