If you would have asked me when I was a kid, ‘What is the one property that will never outlive your childhood?’ – I would have screamed ‘COWABUNGA!’ and pointed squarely to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. More ridiculous than the Smurfs, more chatty than Scooby Doo, and frankly the most ludicrous cartoon heroes ever to be led by a talking rat. Well, it’s been 30 years now and those yapping turtles are still proving me wrong.
This time around, the heroes in a half shell reside in an underground sewer bunker while doling out street justice via Batman-like escapades around New York City, attempting to thwart the nefarious Foot Clan’s plan to destroy the Big Apple. The Turtles have learned the art of ninjitsu from their giant-talking-rat/pseudo-dad, Splinter (oddly voiced by Monk’s Tony Shalhoub). They have also learned skills such as detailed conversation, sarcasm and even IT. The sewers are much more informative than I remember.
When investigative reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) stumbles across the fearless foursome, she agrees to help them take down crooked business owner Eric Sacks (William Fichtner, the actor who elevates anything he’s in, even talking turtle flicks), as well as the most heinous of criminals: the disfigured samurai leader of the Foot Clan, Shredder. With April’s creepy stalker cameraman (Will Arnett, a poor man’s Michael Keaton) in tow, the second half of the film is one set-piece after another until the inevitable confrontation on Sack’s New York skyscraper rooftop.
Okay skeptics, let’s get this out of the way: This film is not the beloved original, gritty comic version brought to life. This is based solely on the cartoon versions of the Turtles, as well as the earlier films in the ‘90s (remember the ones with the guys in those horrendous monster suits?).
There is also a lot to pick apart if you want to: The fact that there may be mountains in New York, but they are not a quick jaunt from Times Square. The absolute nonsense that is the ‘master plan’ of the Foot Clan. The pretty damn terrible CGI representation of Splinter may actually cause you to check under your seat for an infestation. Don’t forget the fact that we are watching a movie where turtles and rats have philosophical conversations, eat pizza, and say things like ‘Cowabunga’ with zeal.
There is much to pick apart here, but how about what the movie gets right? The action scenes are vastly entertaining, specifically an enthralling mountain-slide scene that had the kids in our audience in full-on clap mode. While Splinter’s CGI was atrocious, the Turtles were rendered with each of their distinct personalities in mind, and it is a testament to that crew as we were easily able to differentiate the characters even without their trademark masks.
The voice work was mostly spot on: the leader, Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville, surprisingly the weakest of the four); the tech-guy, Donatello (the perfunctory Jeremy Howard); tough loner, Raphael (Alan Ritchson); and the always ready for parties and pizza, Michelangelo (comedic standout Noel Fisher). If you are still there, wondering: What about the infamous Megan Fox?! She does fine. I would never put her in the ‘good’ category, so let’s just say she is good…for her.
Instead of picking the movie apart, can we all just admit that this has always been a stupid property, haunted for far too long by fans overwhelmed with their own nostalgia glasses? TMNT (as it is known by most fans) is an absolutely ridiculous concept that has outlived far cooler properties for no other reason than it generally stuck to what worked: Dumb fun. There is not a single frame in director Jonathan Liebesman’s reboot that looks to take the Turtles to a more artistic plane, nor make them any smarter than they have ever been. He also has not strayed very far from the original origins, contrary to earlier reports. This effort seems very geared toward appeasing the fans, unlike what you may have heard.
I firmly believe in reviewing a film based on what it is trying to be, not what I want it to be, and TMNT is first and foremost a movie for kids to squee over. If you are blinded by nostalgia or are looking for more depth in a darker world, I would immediately suggest you skip TMNT and rewatch Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or take in a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy for a smarter version of fun. This is not for you.
If you do, on the other hand, still have contact with that little kid buried deep inside of you, and haven’t completely killed him off like so many cynics have – you may find yourself enjoying TMNT. There is a sense of immature fun at play throughout the film, and I found myself smiling far more than this property has ever deserved. If you still cannot forego your own personal history with the Turtles and allow your cold dead heart to find the absurdity of this enjoyable romp, your own kids certainly will. Isn’t it about time they made their own nostalgia?
3 stars out of 5.