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Movie review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Thursday 25th September 2014

Look: I’m gonna spoil this crap. Fair warning.

Early on in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, one of the film’s many seedy douchebags (played by Will Arnett, a master of the form) tells frustrated journo April O’Neil that their audiences are undemanding and easy to please. “Sometimes they just want candy,” he says, making a half-hearted case for the relevance of lightweight lifestyle news. “They buy a cappuccino because they like the, what’s it called, the froth.” (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t care enough to get the dialogue right.)

In a garden-variety dumb film, this type of scene can serve as a knowing wink to the audience, a way for the filmmakers to show they’re in on the joke. “It’s all right guys, we know what we are, keep off our backs and we’ll entertain you.”

A gif of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie
Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles reboot leaves Adam Goodall wistful for a simpler time

Giphy.com

But we’re not working with your garden-variety dumb here. Director Jonathan Liebesman, producer Michael Bay and scriptwriter Evan Daugherty all trade in dumb at a weapons-grade level. That’s why this ‘candy’ scene isn’t a confession, it’s a lie – an expression of contempt for the audience. The turtle movie isn’t just dumb (and it is dumb, aggressively, horrifically dumb): it’s dumb playing at serious. It can’t even stick to froth. And it knows you know.

Though the turtle movie isn’t so much the turtle movie as it is the April O’Neil movie. O’Neil, played by the uniquely vacant Megan Fox, finds her big break in a chemical heist that’s thwarted when some shipping containers are awkwardly flung at the thieves. A series of poor coincidences lead her to the realisation that the turtle vigilantes are the tiny reptiles her dead father, a genetic scientist, used to experiment on; a few more coincidences expose her father’s former research partner, multi-millionaire industrialist Eric Sacks, as a nefarious megalomaniac in the thrall of his shady co-dependent sensei Master Shredder. Also there are the turtles.

That the turtles feel like second-stringers in their own film is hardly the biggest, ugliest problem, because Liebesman and friends have found a multitude of wonderful horrible ways to degrade the turtle legacy. The character designs, with their pronounced lips and photo-realistic people-eyes, find a deeply unsettling middle-ground between Saturday morning cartoons and surrealist painter HR Giger.

Plus, the personalities behind the designs are stunningly lazy. The only difference between nominal leader Leonardo and nominal hardass Raphael is that Raphael scowls a bit more; Donatello is a nerd, as indicated by his nerd voice and nerd glasses; and Michelangelo is comic relief in the grand tradition of the tiny robot that wanted to sexually assault Megan Fox in Transformers 2. Raphael’s the only character afforded an arc, and it’s so perfunctory and dour that 24 hours later I’m still rolling my eyes (WHICH I DON'T THINK IS NORMAL SEND MEDICAL HELP PLEASE).

Liebesman and friends have found a multitude of wonderful horrible ways to degrade the turtle legacy

That arc’s but one part of the film’s great tension – between its melancholy, its destruction and its sub-21 Jump Street sense of humour. From its sombre comic-book opening credits, the turtle movie is preoccupied with the unbreakable bond of family. So its head is held low again and again as that bond is tested by tragedy, Leonardo and Raphael grizzling about Splinter and April sobbing over her dead father and Sacks reminiscing about his own dead dad. Nothing connects, though, because everyone in the film is as thin and bland as rice paper.

That melancholy, too, loses traction because it stands against a stubbornly flip and cartoonish attitude to violence. Liebesman struggles with stealth action and early fights look like they’re blocked by children brought up on the Pokemon anime. While the film does come into its own in a surprisingly fluid setpiece involving a truck and a snow-covered hillside, the turtles and their bad guy counterparts brutalise and destroy like they’re playing playground games, standing at odds with their solemn attitudes towards family and protecting others.

Then there’s the comedy. Driven by a handful of characters, it alternates between self-aware comments on the absurdity of it all, pop culture references (there are two separate jokes about Keyboard Cat) and straight-up Baysian sexism. Megan Fox has to do a demeaning and objectifying job and it’s all lols; Michelangelo creeps on Megan Fox and we’re rolling in the aisles; Will Arnett gets a skeevy stare at Megan Fox’s butt.

Isn’t Adam great when he’s angry? If you think so, he also didn’t enjoy The Giver, The Last Saint, Godzilla and 3 Mile Limit!

That’s not even covering the enormity of the film’s problems. There’s absolutely no pace to the unveiling of information in the first act.The dialogue’s a blunt instrument for delivering emotional and narrative exposition. Everything’s revealed halfway through and the film thinks it can pull it off because it’s some kind of North by Northwest masterpiece. Eric Sacks’ great villainous plan relies on American law enforcement straight-up not existing. To find out about bad crimes, Megan Fox visits a site called worstcrimesinnyc.com.

This isn’t candy. This isn’t froth. This is the acid reflux you get when you eat too much ice cream on a hot summer day but aren’t ready to vomit quite yet. It tastes like shit. You just feel bad about it.

At least it has a theme rap song. I haven’t heard one of those since Deep Blue Sea. I missed them.

Cover image from Facebook.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.



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