Dir: Jonathan Liebesman
To my slight dismay I am now old enough for my childhood and teenage years to be mined for pop culture nostalgia. I grew up on the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (thanks, BBC censorship, for making the word Ninja a surprise when I saw the first film). Michaelangelo was always my favourite, he was closest to my own personality; the pizza obsessed joker, and he had the coolest weapons. I hadn't thought about the turtles in a good couple of decades until this film was announced and I found myself revisiting the earlier movies, discovering that the first held up well; a surprisingly deft mix of humour, action and a little grit. This did not make me optimistic for this reboot, and nor did the 'talent' behind it.
Jonathan Liebesman has previously brought us such contributions to the art of cinema as Battle: LA and such respectful, high quality, takes on franchises with a long legacy as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning while producer Michael Bay has a long list on his crimes against geeks charge sheet, chiefly the unspeakably abysmal Transformers franchise. The pairing doesn't inspire confidence.
In some respects, given the floor level expectations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles qualifies as a reasonably pleasant surprise. I never read the comics, I was too young for them when I was into the cartoon and perceived myself, perhaps wrongly, as too old for them after I grew out of the show and the previous films. This being the case I always saw rather broad characterisations of each of the Turtles. Leonardo was the stoical leader, Raphael the loose cannon, Donatello the nerd and Michaelangelo the joker. The turtles don't need all that much more nuance, and to the film's credit it gets these personality traits right, though they come through more intermittently than you'd like and, sadly and in contrast to the 90's films, seldom figure in the action. Mikey has some funny moments and his crush on April (played by Megan Fox) is intact, while Donatello is less anonymous here than he has been in some iterations of the franchise. The interplay between the brothers is good and faithful to the source, though Raph's separation from the group and rivalry with Leo could be a touch more developed.
The action takes longer to ramp up here than in the 90's films and between the fact that he has too much exposition up front and hides the Turtles for much too long it takes Liebesman more than half of the film's (wisely brief) running time to get to an action scene in which we can really see each of the Turtles fighting. The choreography is solid enough, and while they can be ludicrous the large scale set pieces of the film's third act, especially one that takes the action down the side of a snowy mountain, are also a lot of fun if you can locate your inner nine year old and make him sit still to watch the film. I was never caught up in the story, but I did find myself enjoying the action scenes purely as action scenes.
Unfortunately, while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is better than you'd expect, it's not all that much better than you'd expect and for every thing it gets right it gets two wrong. The casting is a mixed bag. Johnny Knoxville does well as Leonardo, as does Alan Ritchson as Raph, but Mikey and Don both have pretty grating voices (Noel Fisher and Jeremy Howard respectively) and Tony Shalhoub's Splinter simply doesn't carry the gravitas of previous takes on the character.
Then there's Megan Fox. Fox never seemed a likely April O'Neil to me, the character was always, while depicted as attractive, defined by her job rather than her looks. That might have been true here but for the casting of Fox; a vacant actress who has long coasted on her perceived hotness. She does nothing here to suggest she has any ambition to change that. There is an attempt here to give April some depth that she never had in either the show or the other movies (despite Judith Hoag's perfectly solid performance), but the screenplay does this in only the most perfunctory way, giving her an off the peg dead father subplot that also ties into the origin of the Turtles, which is another of the film's big problems.
Tying April in to the origin story not only leads to her lame and predictable back story, but it means that the film has to give us several lengthy and boring infodumps that simply wouldn't be necessary if it weren't for that specific character being tied in to events. It would be fine if it made a dramatic contribution to the film, but it doesn't, beyond Fox's late realisation about the film's villain, which prompts her to actually say, out loud, "You killed my father" (I confess to openly laughing at Megan Fox's blank delivery of that line).
This storyline also gives us a terribly ineffectual villain. The 90's films, while they had a menacing Shredder and a pretty cool second stringer in Tatsu, never quite captured the fun rogues gallery of the TV show, and this is a problem this new film echoes. William Fichtner's villain is an empty suit with little menace, a silly, hackneyed, plan and a ridiculous motive: to become "stupid rich", despite the fact he already lives in a literal mansion.
The only familiar villain used is Shredder and he is the hub of the design problems that are the film's second major issue. Shredder was never the most plausible looking villain, but the 1990 film made gave him a look that fitted into the reality of the New York it presented. The bladed outfit looked threatening, but like something you could imagine someone would make in order to scare the gang he leads into submission. This film's Shredder, by contrast, looks ridiculous. He looks like a cross between one of Bay's Transformers and a sentient knife factory. The first appearance of his costume was another moment at which I let out an inappropriate laugh.
The design issues don't stop there. The Turtles themselves actually look better in motion than they did in publicity shots, but there are still a few moments when the attempts to humanise their faces become just a little eerie and their design is just a bit overly busy with straps, makeshift armour and other accessories.
The film isn't badly shot, but it's anonymous looking. Liebesman is, at best, a journeyman and not even one of Hollywood's more reliable directors in that category. I'd love to have seen how Joe Johnston, a much more talented journeyman, would have tackled this assignment. Still, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does most of what it's supposed to do pretty well. What's frustrating is that there are flashes of a better film - as in a funny little digression in the elevator on the way to the final fight with Shredder - and easy fixes that could have solved some of the film's problems.
The kids in my audience lapped it up and, given that it's for them, perhaps that's all that matters. Still, as someone who grew up a Turtles fan, I'd like to have got more from this film. I think there's room to please old fans and new here, and I'm at least interested enough to see whether a sequel can marshal the elements a bit better, because when this film get things right it's a lot of fun, but it gets them wrong too often.