Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The 'Heroes in a Half-Shell' return for this better-than-expected reboot

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Starring Megan Fox, Jeremy Howard, Will Arnett, Jesse McCartney, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Marsden, Greg Cipes, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub, Minae Noji, K. Todd Freeman, Abby Elliott, Pete Ploszek. Written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Evan Daugherty.

Note: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is screening in both English-language and Czech-dubbed versions in Prague cinemas; check cinema showtimes before heading out to see the movie. 

Produced by Michael Bay (Transformers), directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans), starring Megan Fox, and filled with unappealing – no, downright ugly – CGI characters, most reviews of this live-action reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seem to express genuine surprise that the film is actually not the worst thing they’ve ever seen. 

And after writing it off after seeing the trailer, I, too, was shocked to discover that this version of TMNT is not terrible. No, it’s even almost-good: bright and colorful, fast and quick (at 101 minutes, that’s more than an hour shorter than the latest Transformers flick), with one standout, nicely-choreographed mountaintop action sequence, this thing is nearly decent enough to work.

And most importantly: it’s still the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Despite worries that the filmmakers would bastardize the original creation, this is one concept that has proved stable throughout almost every medium: these are pizza-eating, crime-fighting, genetically-mutated turtles named after renaissance painters, who are taught martial arts by a giant rat. They can make the characters as ugly as they want, but those basics aren’t changing. 

The Turtles might be one of the most mistreated franchises of all-time: after the original Peter Eastman-Kevin Laird comic, which was conceived as a parody but grew into something darker, the Turtles became an animated TV series, a trilogy of live-action movies, a line of action figures, arcade and console games, a concert tour, a rap CD – heck, even a breakfast cereal. 

And most of those iterations were second-rate (save for the classic games, including Turtles in Time). The original movies, independently produced, paled in comparison to the big-budget comic book films of the time (Tim Burton’s Batman movies or Dick Tracy). Still, the basic concept was appealing, and that bled through – in the first 1990 film, at least, which was aided by some terrific Jim Henson creature effects. 

Flash-forward 25 years, and you can forget ever seeing practical effects work like that in a summer blockbuster. Not when the characters can be created in a computer. So we’ve got the four Turtles, their rat mentor Splinter, and the Shredder, who is originally played by Tohoru Masamune but soon becomes a metal-heap Transformer (basically, The Secret of the Ooze’s Super Shredder). Each of these characters is completely motion-capture CGI, and I assume most of the elements of the action scenes are also greenscreen CGI, which begs the question: why make this a live-action film at all?

The answer, I guess, is for April O’Neil, who takes center stage (the Turtles don’t even show up until the half hour mark) and is played by Megan Fox, who famously called producer Bay a “Hitler” and was recast in the Transformers series (I guess they’ve patched things up). The movie is basically a remake of the 1990 film, with intrepid reporter O’Neil covering the rise of the criminal organization The Foot (this time around, a gun-toting terrorist organization) and discovering the titular heroes, who rise from the sewers to battle Foot leader Shredder.

Now, we don’t really need to see this origin story again – which, by the way, is altered to include a young O’Neil saving Splinter and the Turtles from a burning laboratory 15 years prior – but that’s what we’re getting. With the higher budget, there’s a lot of things this film could have gotten right this time around – like introduce some of those colorful villains, or put Fox in that trademark yellow jumpsuit – but Ninja Turtles 2014 is content to follow the 1990 film almost beat for beat, right up to that climactic rooftop faceoff. 

Despite a brisk pace and some appealing human characters (including Will Arnett’s Vernon Fenwick and Whoopi Goldberg’s Bernadette Thompson – a version of O’Neil’s boss from the original comic – and William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks, a character created for the movie) the first half of the film struggles to maintain interest. Things pick up, however, the more time we spend with the titular creatures. 

The Turtle personalities shine through: each of them seems to have been pushed to an extreme, with Donatello now a genius-level egghead, Michelangelo a pothead skater (‘suuuuup), Raphael a rebellious, hulking brute, and Leonardo… well, he’s still the boring leader. There’s an undeniable appeal to these characterizations that shines through the unappealing computer effects work (they’ve tried to, what, make them look more “realistic”?)

Included in the second half is a dynamite action sequence, carefully shot and edited, as the turtles hijack a Foot truck and are chased down a mountain slope by Shredder’s cronies. This climactic chase sequence goes on for about fifteen minutes, but manages to be completely engaging because the individual action beats all have a setup and payoff – we’re aware of what the characters are attempting to do, and how they do it. It’s the film’s highlight (comparable to the barrel escape in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), and a perfect B-movie action set piece. 

If only the rest of the film could live up to that scene. Competently made and able to overcome some of its conceptual flaws, there’s ultimately too may storytelling miscues – including, but not limited to, the Shredder’s ridiculous terrorist plot – for this reboot to completely work. It’s a shocker, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 isn’t awful – but it’s not exactly good, either.

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