Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles serves fans of the material but doesn’t get past the unnecessary nature of this story being told from the beginning once again. How many reiterations of the same origin story can an audience handle? These are admittedly fun characters that interact well together and have the ability to entertain when given the right comedic material. One of the central problems with this latest reboot, though, is its inability to balance the overly dramatic nature of its evildoers and the silly and comedic ways of the titular reptiles. In the middle of serious conversations, such one-liners as “Tonight, we dine on turtle soup,” and “Time to take a bite out of the Big Apple,” are delivered with no style. Having these lines delivered by villains who take themselves seriously often feels strange and tonally off, particularly with comedic talents like Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg providing solid humor alongside the main characters.
The film opens with a rushed origin story of the turtles and how they came to be. According to this latest incarnation, the titular protagonists and a rat named Splinter were test subjects of a drug that supposedly had the ability to combat various diseases. The leader of this test trial, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), hoped to make the world a better place by using this to prevent the potentially widespread nature of various illnesses, but a fire led to the destruction of all of their work and the loss of every life except for his own. The animals and research were presumed to be lost in the mix. But the turtles are still alive, as Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael live in the sewers under New York City with the guidance of their father figure, Splinter. They are told to never move up to ground level for the world will not understand them, but the emergence of the Foot Clan and their theft of chemical weapons leads to their need to help the world.
The only person that knows of their existence, though, is April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a journalist who works with Vernon (Will Arnett), a goofy cameraman that aims to win her over one of these days if she’d just give him a chance. Their investigation of the clan leads them to the turtles, and they all band together to stop Shredder, the arch nemesis of the reptiles with a desire to destroy New York. The story is flimsy and ultimately familiar for those who have seen any other versions of the story. Minor changes occur for the human characters and there are surprising attempts to make a narrative out of those outlying stories. The problem lies within the fact that they don’t make a compelling narrative, and distract from what everyone wants to see: the talking, mutated, pizza-loving, karate-fighting turtles. The film understands the characters and their relationship with one another: Raphael failing to get along with the leadership position of Leonardo, Michelangelo constantly hitting on April and doing whatever he wants, and Donatello clearly being the smartest one in the group.
Yet I accept that my viewing experience is something that will not affect those who want to see TMNT. Fans of the series will thoroughly enjoy the film. It delivers the requisite thrills, fun action scenes, and comic banter that people have grown to love from the series. But for me, it remains mostly empty entertainment that is certainly lifted by the updated humor and manically controlled action scenes. Will Arnett is delightful in a comic sidekick role that basically asks him to get away with his normal schtick in a family-oriented film. Visually the turtles are beautifully rendered with motion capture, but the 3D is rather horrid looking, either due to the presentation I saw or simply a disregard for crafting depth-filled frames. Jonathan Liebesman directs here, best known for making films that go “Kaboom!” often and loudly. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those films, paced haphazardly and tonally inconsistent but not as awful as it should be. It’s merely a forgettable end-of-summer extravaganza.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)