Lucy Liu voice: “You didn’t really think it was going to be any good, did you?”
Beatrix Kiddo voice: “You know…for a second there…huh, yeah. I kinda did.”
Following one of the most disastrous marketing campaigns I’ve seen in a long time, one that emphasized the Michael Bay connection and failed to get good studio-controlled images of its main characters out there before ancillary merchandising got there first, I was finally starting to hear things about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that gave me hope. Like director Jonathan Liebesman saying he loved the cartoon and wanted to be true to it. Rumors that William Fichtner was not, in fact, playing a racially miscast Shredder. Teasers that mocked the idea of the turtles being aliens. Kevin Eastman saying he liked it (to be fair, Eastman, much like Stan Lee, Will Endorse For Food). I’m not even a total hater of the redesigns (save the stupid nostrils) and was looking forward to maybe owning some of the toys.
And then I’m pretty sure I saw a movie in which Michelangelo wants to fuck April.
Oh yes, purists – that’s “Michelangelo,” the correct spelling of the Renaissance artist’s name; a correction finally made after years of Turtles canon misspelling it “Michaelangelo.” I have no strong opinion on that one way or the other – it’s just funny it took so long to do it.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t think I’d have a strong opinion of any changes made to the story – like Transformers and He-Man, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had several similar-yet-different continuities, and if there’s any property that can weather some change, this is it – the Erik Larsen-produced series for Image, and the similarly dark Body Count, for example, were more ultra-violent than anything Michael Bay will likely ever do. But at the same time, there are character beats you want to see be the same in every incarnation – even the Adam West Batman had his parents murdered, though the show didn’t dwell on it.
So, okay…the fact that the turtles AND Splinter are now April’s childhood pets, but also experimented on by her scientist father as part of something called Project Renaissance, and she feeds them crumbs of pizza, but her dad’s partner pulls a double-cross because he’s actually a pupil of Shredder, and Splinter is not only not Japanese but has nothing whatsoever to do with Hamato Yoshi (a name not mentioned in this movie, ever)…and learns ninjutsu from a book, yet ALL his primary fighting moves involve his tail, which would definitely NOT be covered in a book written for humans….
Okay, so technically April is like the turtles’ mother, in a way, because she saves them from a lab fire and releases them into the sewers. And then when she meets them again all grown up, they go on and on about how hot she is, and even after her connection to them is revealed, Michelangelo STILL keeps asking her out…
Ow. Head just banged against the wall a few times.
This movie was not made by fans of Ninja Turtles, whatever they may tell you. It is a movie made by people going through the motions. Just for a far more minor example, there’s a scene in an elevator where Mikey and Raph start beat-boxing, and it almost sounds like “Ninja Rap” for a moment. Before long, Don and Leo have joined in and it’s like a mini music video. It’s fun, except that based on everything established about Leonardo thus far in the movie (he’s the serious one), it’s not the sort of thing he would ever do.
Now, I’ve never been a hater of Megan Fox, particularly. She has an agreeable screen presence in movies like Jennifer’s Body and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and her complete lack of diplomacy and political correctness in interviews is endearing, not to mention she’s easy on the eyes too. But the way April O’Neil is written and depicted herein is a major setback for one of geekdom’s greatest female role model characters. It’s not that Fox is more glamorous than one might expect – who says April can’t look good? – but that every character hits on her constantly. The movie coyly has her forced into the role of entirely frivolous journalist, whose assignments even include getting her to jump on a trampoline as part of a fluff story about fitness. Director Liebesman probably thinks he’s critiquing sexism…but he still found a way to give us Megan Fox getting jiggly on a trampoline.
Side note: why do journalist characters in movies always hate doing arts and human-interest stories and want to be real hard-news reporters? Arts and human-interest stuff is more fun. Trust me, I’ve had people try to turn me into a serious journalist. It sucked. Reporting on toys and movies and stuff is way better. And I think I’d say that even if I had to wear a Speedo and jump on a trampoline.
But back to April – tying her to the origins of the TMNT is also a step back. She’s no longer an ace reporter who tracked them down and helps them out because she’s good at her job; rather, she was pretty much destined to find them again because she owned them once, and even that’s because of her daddy. At one point, she’s at risk of being fired for pitching a story about the turtles without any proof…in the next scene, she’s fired for not having it, yet moments later she’s showing a photo she took of the turtles to William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks. And how did she take that photo, you ask? Well, the turtles took her camera phone and erased it, then gave it back to her. At which point she promptly snapped a few images of them running away, because they’re geniuses. Are we all forgetting that ninjas are supposed to be stealthy? Liebesman uses green fill lighting in almost every other scene to suggest a city in which green creatures could perhaps hide more easily, but they’re still huge and loud.
Also the Foot Clan aren’t ninjas. They’re armed terrorists who appear to have migrated in from The Purge and who call themselves the Foot because they like to step all over people, and because FUCK YOU. These armed terrorists who all dress alike have apparently been terrorizing New York for a full decade or so without the government imposing martial law or anything. But because it took ten years for a rat to learn martial arts and teach it to some turtles, now they’re gonna get it. No human could ever have gotten good at ninjutsu in that time. Or, y’know, just shot them with guns. Ow. There goes my head again, getting hit by the wall.
But apart from that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Well, it’s not all terrible. Will Arnett adds a welcome note of humor as April’s cameraman Vernon, and Alan Ritchson is a hoot as Raphael, the most Noo Yawkery and moody turtle. The last-minute stunt-casting doesn’t really work: Johnny Knoxville sounds notably out of place as the only overdubbed turtle, and Tony Shalhoub isn’t exactly what you’re used to as Splinter – though to be fair, the character isn’t Japanese any more, and I do like the way Splinter now looks like a gross sewer rat rather than anything cute.
Finally, the big battle with Shredder atop a skyscraper makes great use of 3D and honestly did have me on the edge of my seat a few times. Sure, it’s Amazing Spider-Man all over again, but it’s better-staged, and April actually does help out in a significant way. It’s too little, too late, and makes it hard to imagine anyone in the city can ever ignore the turtles again, but for once in the movie you get an exciting sequence.
The way people have been talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you’d think Michael Bay directed it. After seeing it, you may wish he had. I did.
I’d rather see a movie of this: