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Movie Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

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After a considerable amount of thinking, the best word I can use to describe the newest cinematic incarnation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is… “EH.”

It wasn’t the most horrible film I’ve ever witnessed and it certainly wasn’t the greatest. It was sort of in the middle of the road — kind of like one of those real-life turtles you see trying to cross the street when you take a ride down to one of the shore points in New Jersey — just sitting there, oblivious to the fact it’s backing up traffic, not knowing whether to go one way or another. In a way, I guess it’s an apt metaphor for a film filled with masked, human-sized turtles who study martial arts and love pizza.

It’s such a simple juvenile concept. In fact, I still remember the first time I heard about the unorthodox franchise with the weird-sounding name. I was still an impressionable whipper-snapper who was already used to watching cartoons featuring little blue beings that lived in mushrooms, as well as talking dogs who fixed themselves sandwiches and solved mysteries and I STILL thought that the concept behind “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sounded silly and far-fetched. Sure enough, it definitely was, nevertheless it worked. It had an interesting mythology, memorable characters and a unique style. Like many of my fellow impressionable whipper-snappers, I was hooked.

However, that was decades ago.

Therein lies the problem with this tired franchise and also with this film — it simple hasn’t changed enough to remain relevant.

What started out as a whimsical idea by co-creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman has morphed into a legitimate pop culture icon during the three

Megan Fox and turtle in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

Is that Michael Keaton? No, my bad, it’s Tobey Maguire.

decades since its meager inception at Mirage Studios back in 1984. Having said that, these teenage turtles are starting to show cracks in their facade at age thirty. Even though the screenwriting tandem of Andre Nemec, Josh Appelbaum and Evan Daugherty tried their best to give the franchise a 2014 makeover — even going so far as limiting well-known franchise catchphrases to only certain, special occasions within the context of the film — the whole thing seems so… well, how do I put this?

Simply put, these teens have refused to grow up while the rest of the world have passed them by.

Really, it’s a shame that such a fantastic, near perfect summer action flick like “Guardians of the Galaxy” had to come out only a week before “Turtles” was released and steal the show, but them’s the breaks. While “Guardians” highlighted a largely unknown group of characters and provided them with witty banter, top-notch CGI effects, and a hipster-oriented, “wink-wink” sense of humor, “Turtles” took a bunch of well-known, beloved characters and gave them a script full of fart jokes and tired genre cliches to work with.

If you had to break it down, the turtles aren’t really to blame for this muck-up. Now, I’m a die-hard sports fan and it kind of reminds me of the same problem the Philadelphia Phillies are going through at the moment. While the easy route would be to use past-their-prime players like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley as scapegoats, I see the owners and management as the guilty party. If old and broken-down veterans are expected to play like eager, spritely rookies AND you also surround them with various tools that turn out to be dull and blunt then success would be awfully hard to come by.

The same case can be made regarding the “Turtles” movie. Aging franchises that used to be funny aren’t always AS funny in present times. In a way, management surrounded Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo (in case you didn’t know, these are the Turtles’ names) with the same pun-filled, bad writing and lackluster, humdrum characters that used to be fresh and new when they first started and expected it to continue to work with very few changes. That is NOT exactly the recipe for success.

Granted, the aesthetic look of the Turtles and some of the other main characters (like their rat sensai Splinter and the film’s primary villain Shredder) might have received a slight makeover, but their nostalgic, yet worn-down core still remains intact. It’s an uninspiring and lazy way to make movies and might be the reason why the Turtles are always getting a “reboot” every few years. For some reason, SOMEBODY thinks this franchise should be reintroduced to the American public every once in a while and THIS particular time that “somebody” is Hollywood producer/director  extraordinaire (or at least he thinks so) Michael Bay.

It didn’t surprise me that Bay (who only produced this go-round) is trying to take a stab at returning another once-relevant franchise to its former

Shredder in "Teenage... Turtles"

Look, Shreddy Krueger. Plus it’s technically the same shot as the one above. I told you, creativity rules in this one.

glory. I mean, ever since his success with the “Transformers’ films it’s seemingly been his obsession to recreate this particular brand of Hollywood makeover magic. He tried to do it with “Friday the 13th” — failure. He tried with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — semi-failure. He EVEN added three sequels to his Transformer legacy, which have increasingly gotten worse with every addition. Now, he’s trying to cinematically resurrect the “Turtles,” which wouldn’t be a problem if Bay just paid attention to his main audience is.

Now, there were two types of audience members at the screening I attended who were the MOST excited to see the new “Turtles” film. The first type were small children — ages 4 thru, let’s say, 10 (as well as their not-so-excited parents) — who carried around “Turtles” action figures and practiced their karate moves while waiting in-line. I guarantee that the majority of these tikes ended up liking the film and weren’t too concerned with any of the plot, dialogue or character depth. So, for the first type, the film was most likely a glorious success.

The second type were grown-up versions of kids who had been exposed to one variation or another of the Turtles franchise during the formative years of their lives and came to watch the new “Turtles” film for nostalgic purposes. Basically, fans (or some refer to them as “fanboys”) who love them some old school… ummh… stuff. I guarantee that a majority of this type of audience member (including me) ended up HATING this new direction that Bay and company have taken the Turtles to.

I know, I know. You can’t please everyone, but in Bay’s attempts to cater to the second type — the fanboys — he completely alienated the first type — the small children (and their not-so-excited parents). For some odd reason, Bay was okay with churning out a film with a PG-13 rating. Now, my niece is 6 yars-old and her parents would not let me take her to this film BECAUSE of its PG-13 rating. In other words, they were convinced it would be too violent and it frightened them away EVEN though the ad campaigns make it seem like it’s child-friendly.

It’s really an exercise in futility — young kids are going to want to see this film, because it looks funny, silly and entertaining, but their parents aren’t going to let them. I mean, there’s a “Turtle” cartoon that airs on Nickelodeon as we speak. For goodness sake, this newest film was BACKED by Nickelodeon, but it’s still rated PG-13. It makes ZERO sense. The only thing I can think of is that Bay wanted to duplicate the success he had with the Transformers franchise and he didn’t think the fanboys would show up for a PG film, so he upped the violence a little and added a few questionable situations and phrases to cater towards a more adult audience. Any way the katana slices it, this “ratings” decision is going to hurt this film immensely and will ultimately be its downfall — mark my words.

The actual film itself, well, it’s really not even worth talking about. Just picture any AND every action movie cliche and I guarantee it makes an appearance in this movie. It’s not TOTALLY the fault of the writers. Some of the bigger cliches are a result of the original character traits created by Eastman and Laird all those years back, but mostly it IS the writers. Sorry, I call ’em like I see ’em.

For example, the hard-nosed, eager TV journalist April O’Neill (played by Megan Fox — who, like Bay, is trying to regain her former “Transformers” glory) embodies this cinematic stereotype perfectly. She’s not happy with her fluffy, human interest story gig, so she puts herself in harm’s way to get the scoop. Later, this character transforms (pun intended) into an Emma Stone/Gwen Stacy archetype (from “The Amazing Spider-Man”) and becomes the fighting damsel-in-distress. In fact, this film borrows a number of elements from “Spider-Man” — including Whoopi Goldberg (she’s back!!!) and her very J. Jonah Jameson turn as O’Neill’s jerky boss Bernadette Thompson.

“Turtles” borrows and pilfers from a lot of films and licenses — like Batman and James Bond — but sometimes the writers seem to be aware they ARE

Megan Fox and Will Arnett in "Teenage... Turtles"

Fox… nett.

doing this and it reflects in some of the dialogue choices. This doesn’t make it right, but it does soften some of the more blatant acts of larceny and at least it shows that they know their film is wholly unoriginal.

The action is also uninspired, but it still ends up being fun to watch — especially a fairly long “sledding”  sequence where our heroes do their best impression of Indiana Jones (from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and Shaun White at the same time. There are some impressive fight scenes as well, but a lot of them are courtesy of CGI-based characters, so I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not, which makes them slightly less impressive. I guess I’d have to give the animators a pat on the back then. I mean, it’s no “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but the Turtles themselves did look pretty fantastic throughout — especially some of the more close-up scenes.

Back to more of the real-life actors. Will Arnett was adequate in his role as Vernon — April O’Neill’s cameraman/sidekick/possible love interest. Basically he was there for comic relief purposes. I CAN say that a few of Arnett’s less contrived lines managed to garner a chuckle from the audience. However, I can also say that all of his jokes combined wouldn’t hold a nunchuck to just ONE of Chris Pratt’s (Star Lord) lesser jokes in “Guardians.” I can honestly say that Dave Bautista was funnier as Drax than Arnett was in this film. Again, it’s not entirely the player’s (Arnett) fault when management (Bay, the writers, and director Jonathan Leibesman) gives them nothing to work with. In this case, the “nothing” is the boring, watered-down screenplay.

On the flip side, William Fichtner is quite effective (as usual) as self-made businessman and philanthropist Eric Sacks. That being said, Fichtner has absolutely perfected the role of the slimy, creepy, untrustworthy type and his performance in “Turtles” is no different from any of his previous work. If you’ve seen him in “The Lone Ranger” (that is, if you’ve actually even SEEN “The Lone Ranger”), you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’ve seen him in “The Longest Yard,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’ve seen him in “Heat” (my personal favorite Fichtner performance), you’ll know what I’m talking about. Here, I’ll make this even simpler. If you saw him play the cold and calculated rich guy in “Elysium,” then you can easily picture him as Eric Sacks, because it’s pretty much the same character with a little bit more screen time.

Now, Megan Fox as April O’Neill. What can I say about her? Well… uhhh… she’s… uhhh… Megan Fox is really a good-looking woman.

While the CGI-rendering of the actual Ninja Turtles themselves might not be as funny as Rocket Raccoon (from “Guardians”) and might not be as

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in... well, you know the rest.

Okay guys,here’s the play…

impressive looking as Caesar (from “Apes”), they still do the trick, but that’s part of the problem though. ALL they do is tricks. Somehow, they still manage to come off like amphibious versions of X Games rejects, which might have been ahead of its time in the 1980’s, trendy in the 1990’s, and retro in the 2000’s, but it’s simply played-out by today’s standards. Even without the constant catch-phrases  (“cowabunga” anyone?), which the screenwriters tried their best to ignore, the turtles end up being sad and tired. Dare I say it? They’re simply shells of their former selves (sorry, I had to).

Again, it won’t really matter. Kids will LOVE the good old “turtle power” anyway, as most of the jokes are aimed towards those with juvenile senses of humor, but — guess what? — most of these kids won’t make it to theaters in the first place, due to the aforementioned ratings snafu. And that, my friends, is what they call a “catch-22.” Or should I say, a “catch turtle-2″ (now, that one I REALLY apologize for).

As you can probably tell, I was NOT that big of a fan of this cliche-ridden, predictable and fairly unspectacular “summer spectacular.” But let me be totally fair, I’m not exactly a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise in general, so take my negativity with a grain of salt (and a sprinkle of sherry, because THAT’S what makes a great snapper soup).

However, the person that WILL end up digging this flick is your young son and/or daughter or maybe even your niece and/or nephew. As long as they’re under 13, they’ll find it appealing. Actually, I’ll put my reputation on the line and guarantee that there is nothing TOO inappropriate for young people in this film, especially those over 6 or 7. This makes that PG-13 rating even more of an awful shame, doesn’t it?, “Turtles” is aimed towards the under-13 crowd, but it ended up with a rating that assures youngsters can NOT get in without a guardian. What a mess.

And wouldn’t cha know it, “Guardians” have trumped the Turtles once again.

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