Certain movies scenes are absolutely gift-wrapped for critics looking for a perfect way to begin or perhaps end their review. For example, I, like so many others, absolutely could not resist talking about the Return of the Jedi moment in X-Men: Apocalypse, which is when the new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler come out of a movie theater debating Jedi and conclude that everyone knows the third movie is always the worst. It comes off like screenwriter Simon Kinberg throwing shade at the derided X-Men: The Last Stand and possibly inward at Apocalypse as well, and every reviewer should thank him for putting that in there. It made our jobs so much easier.
Similarly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not the new one in theaters right now but the one which came out in 2014, includes an early exchange which seems to come with the subtext, “You’re welcome, all you people looking for ways to crap out 1,000 words about this movie.” Megan Fox’s intrepid reporter April O’Neil laments that she didn’t go to four years of journalism school to be stuck filing puff pieces for her local New York City news stations. Her cameraman Verne, played with endless charm by Will Arnett, doesn’t see what’s so bad about fluff, “It’s also okay to give people something a little lighter, a little…froth.”
April can’t help but correct him, pointing out that he means “foam” not “froth,” but he rolls with it, “Yes, foam, froth, you get the point. It’s nice. It tastes good. It’s candy. You ever heard the expression ‘never take candy from a baby’? It’s because even babies love candy. It’s nice. You’re giving people something they really want, and it’s good and nice.” He then loses his train of thought, says “nice” a couple of more times and tries to finally make his move on April, who seems completely oblivious. It’s hard to tell with her, though, because recognizable emoting and Megan Fox don’t often meet in this movie.
“You’re giving people something they really want, and it’s good and nice,” might as well as be the Michael Bay motto, followed by “America, fuck yeah!” and ending with “Did you see that girl’s ass?” Of course, Michael Bay didn’t direct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) did, but it comes from Bay’s assembly line at Platinum Dune Productions. It’s cheaply produced, and has that same oddly yellow hue that plagues most Platinum Dune films. There’s most definitely a self-assured male gaze, albeit not quite as leering as usual. And it has an early scene with a character who’s essentially telling us, “This whole movie is nonsense, but it’s the type of fun nonsense you eat up. So sit back and enjoy.”
Oh, don’t you tell me to sit back and enjoy, Michael Bay movie. I remember how much people hated this movie two years ago. I watched a couple of those YouTube videos where fans around my age and younger who also grew up on the Turtles cartoons angrily listed all the ways Bay ruined the characters. I didn’t feel as passionately about any of this as them, but I had Turtles toys when I was kid. I went to see those first two live-action movies in theaters. I was a Ninja Turtle for at least one Halloween. A crappy new Ninja Turtles movie wouldn’t ruin my childhood or somehow rob me of those memories, but it still wouldn’t feel great.
Funny thing about that. In anticipation of the new sequel, I finally watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Thanks Hulu!) last night, and, God help me, I kind of liked it.
Before I go on, here’s the part where I very briefly explain the plot: Big city besieged by criminal organization. Reporter tracking the story of a vigilante fighting back against the bad guys. No one believes her. She gets proof. Still no one believes her. She catches the vigilante in the act and discover he’s actually a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and there are four of them. Cue internet-enraging expository flashback (the origin story differs from the norm; this time, the Turtles were Oscorp-esque science experiments who’d also once been April’s pets). Establish the personality-lite bad guys (hello, Shredder). Explain their city-threatening scheme. Build to rumble.
Here’s how MoviePilot broke down the actual characters:
Despite the change in backstory, all four turtles and Splinter (Tony Shaloub) are exactly the same characters as in the cartoon series. Splinter is still a strict-but-loving sensei, Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville) is the fearless leader, Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is the disgruntled tough guy, Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the inquisitive techno-genius, and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) is the comic relief surfer dude fans have come to know and love over the years. They still eat pizza, they are NOT aliens, they still use their trademarked weapons, and they still kick butt.
Don’t get me wrong. The whole thing is cheap and lazy, with a stylized animated opening which feels tacked on and condescending, as if some genius at Platinum Dunes or Paramount gave down the following note, “We’re worried the kids won’t understand any of this if we only explain the origin story once. Can we maybe do it two times, but as cheaply as possible, like in a way which would have maybe looked cool a decade ago in a Playstation 2 game?”
Megan Fox is….well, she’s trying very hard in the often amusing early sequences where she seems like a crazy person with her talk of a vigilante but knows that she seems like a crazy person and is desperate to find evidence and convince her colleagues. However, once she meets the Turtles, and sometimes even before that, she challenges January Jones for the title of “Queen of the Monotone Line Reading.”
Certain projects know how to use Fox’s limited range to their benefit, such as her surprisingly fantastic recent New Girl arc. TMNT, on the other hand, almost seems designed like a revenge ploy engineered by Bay to get back at Fox for all the bad things she’s ever said about him and the Transformers movies. Tired of scenes where the camera just looks at your ass? Well, here’s a scene where you’re dangling out the side of a car, but Will Arnett is staring at your ass and it’s funny, although they only do that the one time, which is progress, I suppose.
What else is bad. Let’s see. The CGI is sub-par. The plot is overly predictable, even by kids movie standards. Raphael apparently has an arc about wanting to leave the Turtles and fight crime on his own, but I somehow missed most of it (probably because it’s barely even there). Michelangelo’s crush on April is relatively sweet and benign at first, but outstays its welcome. Some of the meta moments are groanworthy (e.g., Arnett saying, “They’re like heroes in a half-shell?”).
Hold on. I did say I actually liked this film, right?
Huh. Maybe I’m realizing I didn’t exactly like the film; I liked the Turtles, who are as exactly as funny (and immature) as I remember. Yes, they, along with their master Splinter, all look fairly terrible at first, but not in such a way that you can’t eventually adjust to it.
Before you even get there, though, TMNT plays out like a spot-on parody of a Batman movie, with April O’Neil standing in for Vicky Vale. There are shipping dock beatdowns bathed in shadow. April speaks of a vigilante with a sense of hope. Composer Brian Tyler basically copies his Thor: The Dark World musical score with minor variations, meaning it certainly sounds like a superhero movie.
When we do finally meet the Turtles, they are clearly just as aware of superhero movies as we are. They’re all doing their best Batman impressions, and practically narrating their action sequences, quick to place themselves in the hero roles they’ve seen in so many movies. April walks in on them in the middle of this on a rooftop, and they freeze, completely unsure what to do next. It’s like she’s walked in on them singing in the shower, and discovered they can’t carry a tune. Their true personalities quickly come through, revealing that, as per the title, they’re just a bunch of teenagers.
It’s genuinely clever and funny, and but one of many Whedon-esque moments throughout the film. Eventually, the script take this meta humor too far, cracking one too many jokes about the absurdity of the film’s entire premise. However, even then TMNT manages to pass the, “Would you want to hang out with them?” test. As capably performed by the four voice actors, the Turtles come off as characters you’d actually rather hang out with and listen to them crack jokes instead of following along with their showdown with a big bad. Thankfully, because the Turtles are so amusing the showdown with the big bad as well as their interactions with monotone Fox prove surprisingly tolerable.
22% – “Neither entertaining enough to recommend nor remarkably awful, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may bear the distinction of being the dullest movie ever made about talking bipedal reptiles.”