A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 101 mins.


Megan Fox as April O'Neil  /  Alan Ritchson as Raphael  /  Will Arnett as Vernon Fenwick  /  Noel Fisher as Michelangelo  /  Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo  /  William Fichtner as The Shredder  /  Minae Noji as Karai  /  Jeremy Howard as Donatello  /  Whoopi Goldberg as Bernadette Thompson  /  Danny Woodburn as Master Splinter  /  Abby Elliott as Irma Langinstein  /  Tony Shalhoub as Splinter

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman  /  Written by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Evan Daugherty



Cinematic reboots should, I feel, dramatically revitalize their subject matter for contemporary audiences while remaining faithful to it.  

The newest silver screen TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES film – the fifth version to hit theaters since the very first live action iteration was released 24 years ago – certainly makes concentrated attempts to reinvigorate the long-standing franchise with some new myth-busting ideas (which may or may not anger many TMNT purists out there), but the real problem with this Michael Bay produced, Jonathan Liebesman directed (WRATH OF THE TITANS, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES) is that the entire endeavor feels half-hearted and lacking in genuine inspiration.  Instead of leaping off of the screen with a jubilant freshness, the film sort of lingers on it without much joy or enthusiasm.

I would not say that this new retooled TMNT flick is a mockery of the comic book universe established in the mid-1980’s by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, nor is it entirely without merit (on a production level alone, this is the most expensive and lavish looking of all of the Ninja Turtle feature films).  No, I think that the real issue at hand with this reboot is that it never really garners much interest in the Turtles themselves as compelling characters, not to mention that its handling of their chief adversary leaves a lot to be desired.  That, and, let’s face it, Liebesman is essentially a filmmaker hired to fulfill a journeyman-like job to inject the Michael Bay-ian formula into the new series without actually having Bay shoot the film itself.  In essence, this means that TMNT is loaded with ample ear-piercing noise, a lot of erratically edited action sequences that frequently lack clarity, and a preponderance of glossy – but sometimes muddled - CGI visual effects that drown out our full immersion in this otherwise tactile world.  



The fact that the film’s only real tangible moment of artistic inspiration is in its artfully presented, comic book inspired opening credits montage is kind of revealing (the rest of the film struggles to find the novelty of this very short introductory sequence).  After this, TMNT takes an arduously long time to settle in and introduce us to its heroes-in-a-half-shell main characters.  We are first introduced to a determined, gutsy, and ambitious investigative news journalist April O’ Neil (played by Megan Fox, arguably the least plausibly cast investigative news journalist that I can recall) that’s looking for answers into a recent string of terrorists acts perpetrated on the Big Apple by a group known as “The Foot Clan.”  Her problem, though, is that everyone back at the office thinks that she is better off doing happy-go-lucky fluff pieces and should avoid any aspirations of becoming a “serious” journalist, including her friend and cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett, who just can’t seem to find a strong film to properly harness his superlative comic instincts). 

Needless to say, April continues to stick her nose in Foot Clan affairs, which culminates with her having a first encounter with a group of nocturnal masked vigilantes that are near Incredible Hulk sized reptiles, comprised of Raphael (voiced by Alan Richardson), Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard).  Predictably, April is stunned by the discovery of the mutated heroes that saved her life (equally predicable is that no one, including her deeply suspicious editor, believes her larger than life story), but subsequent meetings between her and the Turtles (as well as their mutated rat sensei, Splinter, oddly voiced by Tony Shalhoub) allows her to make a startling discovery of personal ties that she had with all of them well before they achieved their current bipedal form.  Through her investigation, she learns of a vile plot by the Foot Clan’s leader, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his wealthy benefactor, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), which forces the Turtles into action. 

Of the good I will say this: TMNT takes great pains to make the Turtles this go around as photographically real as possible using cutting edge motion capture and CG effects.  On this level, the film is certainly successful, as the green skinned protagonists have a texture and weight that helps lend some grounded credence to their otherwise outlandish facades.  The overall look of the Turtles, though, is kind of a frustrating letdown.  Liebesman and company have newly envisioned them as massively bulked up monstrosities that are, for lack of a better word, kind of creepy looking (a more interesting artistic choice would have been to scale down their size to their much more diminutive comic book standards; these gigantic Turtles are so huge and so virtually indestructible that you rarely feel that they are ever in any danger).  Also, there’s very little attempt at differentiating the Turtles in terms of their personalities (granted, the book-wormy, tech savvy Donatello is arguably the only one with any unique character traits).  More often than not, I found myself having difficulty just distinguishing one Turtle from the next.  There’s a frustrating sameness to them here. 

The action set pieces are competently handled, but sometimes they’re shot in such dim lighting and erratic choreography (which really is not assisted by the already murky palette of upconverted 3D here) that you find yourself straining to make visual sense of if all far more often than not.  There’s also little tension at all to be derived in the film when it becomes glaringly apparent that the enormous and unstoppable heroes can mow their way through their meager Foot Clan opponents without breaking much of a sweat.  There is, though, a wonderfully realized sequence featuring the Turtles, April, and Vernon being perused down a snow covered mountain by the Foot that’s kid of exhilarating.  Unfortunately, there are not enough scenes in the film like this of such zany novelty.  

TMNT builds towards a big finale pitting the Turtles versus Shredder (who’s re-imagined as a ninja warrior decked out in a huge robotic enhanced suit that, frankly, seems unnecessary considering the already established lethality of the character) that’s more bloated and overproduced than it is truly engaging and exciting.  The human side characters – both during the finale and at other key moments in the film – are essentially puppets at the mercy of the film’s frenetic action and mayhem.  Megan Fox, to be fair, was obviously not hired for her thespian abilities, but she’s not altogether bad in her role of April (she’s adequate at best).  It’s just that she lacks the confidence and performance chops to pull off the role with any level of veracity.  She’s just pure window dressing here.  Granted, she’s essentially reduced to damsel-in-distress mode throughout most of the film and is not given much more to work with. 

The $125 million budgeted TMNT is more of a dutiful continuation of a mass marketed “brand” than it is a fully realized motion picture.  I didn’t leave the film hating it, but left without feeling much reverence for it either.  I don’t think the reboot does a particularly good job at bridging the gap between adult viewers looking to appease their childhood nostalgia and new child viewers (the film’s main target audience is the 10-14 crowd).  I think kids will come out of the film modestly enjoying TMNT, but most older audience members who grew up with the franchise may find it passably engaging, but mostly forgettable.  This new TMNT just seems to lack…character and charm.  It’s funny, but the Turtles from the original 1990 film (the product of animatronic head puppetry, stunt performers in costumes, and a game voice cast) are, even to this day, much more distinctive and inviting as characters - despite the now archaic technology used to create them – than the computer rendered versions here.  

There’s a lesson here, I think.

  H O M E