Film review: The updated take on TMNT loses charm

The shellbacked Renaissance teens get a 3D treatment in Michael Bay’s modernization of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Publicity photo. The shellbacked Renaissance teens get a 3D treatment in Michael Bay’s modernization of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Publicity photo.

The fact that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t as bad as it could have been is a small miracle, given the reverse Midas touch of producer (and not director, another miracle) Michael Bay on preexisting franchises. Considering the film’s primary problems are only that it’s basically a straight-to-DVD actioner with cartoon characters shoehorned in and most of its action scenes are straight-ahead gunfights that could have just as easily starred Dolph Lundgren as these four heroes in a half shell—and not full of the typical flailing, desperate machismo—maybe we came out on top. Maybe.

Though news of a Bay-produced reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had initially caused many to roll their eyes in both disbelief and resignation, it wasn’t until he announced details of the plot—the turtles would be “from an alien race”—that a full-scale online riot broke out. Among the demands of the uprising were that the characters have their “Teenage” and “Mutant” status reinstated, and that Bay quit tampering with Gen Y’s gilded nostalgia for its beloved long-form commercials for action figures and diabetes-causing cereals disguised as children’s entertainment. Bay relented, and for a time, it seemed that filmgoers had scored a victory over the soulless number-crunchers of Hollywood.

Now that the film has hit theaters, it’s clear that the “alien race” misunderstanding was just part of a larger problem. Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman (purveyor of forgettable fare like Wrath of the Titans and Battle: Los Angeles) weren’t just out to alter canon. They wanted to systematically eradicate almost anything fun from the source material in pursuit of conventionality. 

Everything that was fun and iconic about the world of the Ninja Turtles has been squashed into preexisting tropes: The Foot Clan, rather than being a highly skilled ninja force with cool outfits, is a paramilitary operation with semi-automatic weapons (the Turtles are, conveniently, bulletproof). The Shredder may be a highly skilled warrior, but he mostly just clangs things around in a samurai mech suit, making him nearly indistinguishable from the villain in last summer’s The Wolverine

April O’Neil starts out fine as an underutilized daytime TV reporter, but casting a blander-than-ever Megan Fox in the role and giving her even less to do in the second half than Lois Lane in Man of Steel reeks of dudes not knowing how to write for women. Even the expository rap over the closing credits, one of the best parts of ’80s and ’90s cheesefests, is a bland Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa throwaway with all of the right references but not a trace of the right tone.

Which brings us to the Turtles themselves. And surprisingly, they’re a lot of fun when they’re allowed to be the cartoon characters they are. Their much-maligned design actually fits the look of the film, and the CG and vocal performances give them real personalities. Watching them flip around and goof off like teenage ninjas would is silly fun (when you can see it clearly, no thanks to the criminal mix of 3D and shaky cam), but the decision not to adjust the tone, placing them in a stylized version of New York instead of bringing them closer to realism, is a huge lost opportunity.

The more cartoonish TMNT allows itself to be, the more fun it gets. We see this in scenes like the over-the-top truck chase down a snowy hillside, or even the elevator freestyling. These scenes are the spirit of TMNT, full of boyish energy and charm. Gunfights and shaky cam are not.

Playing this week

A Most Wanted Man
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

And So It Goes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Begin Again
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Beverly Hills Cop (Wed.)
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Get On Up
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Guardians of the Galaxy
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

I Origins
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Into the Storm
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Planes: Fire & Rescue
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Purge: Anarchy
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Step Up All In
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Wish I Was Here
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Movie houses

Regal Downtown Mall
Cinema 6

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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