The latest un-called for modern reimagining of a decades-old old property is here; and it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! I’m of the age where the original cartoon series could easily have been a big part of my childhood, but in actuality it barely registered. I’m sure I caught an episode or two but that’s it. It was quite a surprise to recently learn about the franchise’s history, from its bizarre origin as a violent black-and-white parody comic, to the fact that TV shows and such have been produced almost constantly since the late eighties. There’s apparently a much larger audience out there for this totally silly series than I thought, enough to justify a $125 million reboot movie in Hollywood’s eyes anyway.
So having next-to-no nostalgia for the original series, I walked up to buy a ticket for TMNT hoping to be able to judge this new film purely on its own merits, of which there are practically none. I’ve watched plenty of bad movies in the cinema in my time but for the first time ever a wave of embarrassment came over me as I asked one the two pretty young women working in the almost-empty lobby for ‘one for Ninja Turtles please’. My prescient sense of shame proved all-too appropriate as I later exited, having just sat through what it most probably the worst movie of the summer.
The notion of the ‘gritty reboot’ has already become something of a laughing point, and I guess we have Batman Begins to thank/blame for that, but I honestly can’t think of many films that fit the description at all. TMNT adopts a familiar dark, urban look, adding in bits of PG-13 level violence in an attempt to appeal more to an older audience but can’t hope to make ‘realistic’ versions of crime-fighting giant turtles and packs in plenty of childish humour aimed at kids. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans) mysteriously keeps them in the shadows for their first few appearances as if their reveal is supposed to be some big moment (they are on the poster after all) but it might have been a good idea to stick with it, as the CGI performance-capture design adopted for the turtle-men renders them as grotesque, repulsive creatures (as with rat sensei Splinter).
They’re also not the main characters, as TMNT has decided to make aspiring reporter April O’Neil the primary focus of the film. She discovers the turtles when investigating a series of crimes carried out by the elusive ‘Foot Clan’. It’s not an inherently bad idea to make a Ninja Turtles movie from the point-of-view of a human female character, but unfortunately she’s played by the lifeless Megan Fox, who doesn’t seem to drum up even the slightest enthusiasm for anything she’s doing on screen.
Unlike the barely-there April, TMNT does try to reflect the individual personalities of the Turtles a little, but it hardly works and creates an improper dynamic within the team. Leonardo and Raphael are basically interchangeable but both come across as being serious minded ‘grizzled veteran’ type fighters, but the film reminds you that they’re all supposed to be teenagers in a groan-inducing introduction when they list off the film’s title together. Donatello is just supposed to be the geekier, smarter member (you can tell because he wears glasses!) but Michelangelo is like an excitable 12-year-old. It’s hard to describe just how stupendously annoying he is, constantly cracking awful jokes or displaying creepy cross-species sexual attraction. He even starts singing towards the end; you’ll have wished the Shredder had diced him to pieces.
The one vaguely positive thing I can say about the start of TMNT is that it doesn’t spend its first half just winding through an origin story; the turtles are out fighting crime at the start. However after April meets them we get Splinter explaining everything via a series of mostly nonsensical flashbacks (Splinter could apparently understand English when he was a lab rat, before he had been mutated?) that Lone Ranger-style attempt to provide an explanation for every part of the turtles’ get up. Their names, the colours they use in their uniforms, even their love of pizza (guess who gets the product placement there!) are all seeded. It also constructs a convoluted, Amazing Spider-Man 2 like excuse for April to be tied in with the Turtles whole story; they were her pets you see! It actually has another similarity to The Lone Ranger in that the only actor with much dignity left is William Fichtner as an evil businessman (not The Shredder as had been originally reported).
His plan is some stupid, hardly explained idea to extract something from the turtles’ blood and make some antidote for a disease he’s yet to spread, but the film has long since stopped caring about making a lick of sense. The second half mainly just consists of CGI creatures engaging in dull fights. The Shredder here is decked out in some weird robotic samurai suit with so many blades attached to it that it just looks ludicrous rather than scary. Liebesman does try to inject a little energy towards the end with an action scene set as they plummet down a snowy mountain but the CGI-filled chase fails to generate any excitement.
At the time of writing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has depressingly already made enough money that a sequel has been greenlit. I’m mildly curious to see how that will ultimately do as I find it hard to imagine anyone really liking this film. Anyone with nostalgia for the old cartoon probably won’t care for this new approach and it’s hard to imagine a child audience wanting to see the further adventures of boring reporter April O’Neil and a few horrible giant turtles engaging in video game fights. But then again it may well turn into a Transformers-like series, where the film seems universally loathed yet is also phenomenally successful. There is after all, no accounting for tastes, or why anyone involved in this film thought these were good ideas.