Critic's Grade: C
Back on the silver screen with big, gawky teeth rendered in detailed motion-capture glory, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is loud, incoherently directed, brash, obnoxious and packed with enough product placement to fill a NASCAR track. Which is to say, it’s kind of exactly what a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie should be, for good or ill.
Long ago, when it was announced that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes was taking on the pizza-chomping reptiles, fans lost their collective shit, accusing Bay and his cronies of raping their nostalgic memories in the interest of turning a profit, the same way they did when they took on the Transformers.
Thing is, nostalgia has a way of warping reality, especially with the generation of folks who grew up loving the Turtles. And not even the original Turtles, who many forget were born of a black-and-white comic rife with ultraviolence. The cartoon Turtles—and their subsequent movie and videogame selves—ditched their origins as head-slicing badasses to become an animated toy factory, designed with the specific imperative of selling as many action figures, games, boxes of cereal, pajamas, t-shirts, Halloween costumes and tie-in specials at Pizza Hut as possible. And it worked, mainly because the toys were super cool. They had cool knives. There was an insectoid scientist paying homage to The Fly, a punk-rock warthog, a samurai rabbit and a talking brain that lived in a cyborg’s stomach. The Turtles’ world was weird, wonderful and expansive.
But it wasn’t sacred. No matter how you slice it, the TMNT universe is one of skillful marketing. The storylines that featured prominently in the cartoon were forgettable. The movies were ridiculous. The only interesting plots that existed were the ones we invented in our heads, the ones we often misremember as being canon because we spent playtime crafting mythology while slamming action figures together in a sandbox.
So to say an update with rampant product placement and generic, broadly drawn characters is anything but a faithful and accurate depiction of the Turtles would be lying to yourself. Jonathan Liebesman’s film is just fine. It’s a jaunty, jumbled mess, sure, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of a kid playing with toys.
Most importantly, it gets the Heroes in the Half Shell exactly right. That’s not a tough task, considering that each Turtle has three distinguishing traits, two of which are accessories (their masks and weapons). Leonardo’s the boring leader, Raphael’s kind of a dick, Donatello’s a nerdy tech wizard and Michelangelo’s a moderately annoying goofball. They live in the sewer with mutated rat/sensei Splinter, and lurk in the shadows, where they protect New York from a violent clan of ninjas called the Foot Clan, led by walking cheese grater the Shredder. They all look cool. They all make wisecracks. And they fight—in the sewers, on the rooftops and, most spectacularly, while engaging in a chaotic car chase down the slopes of a snowy mountain. For all intents and purposes, the Turtles have done their jobs.
Which makes it all the more befuddling that the film spends so much time with go-to TMNT damsel in distress April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a plucky and perky reporter who spends the overwhelming majority of the film trying to figure out what we all know: where the Turtles came from. It’s slime, lady! Done and done. Now get back to the ninja fights.
Alas, April’s quest—which involves a reliably slimy William Fichtner and a reliably funny Will Arnett—persists as she tracks down the remaining vial of mutagen, finds out all about her long-lost dad and, finally and thankfully, gets kidnapped, allowing the Turtles an excuse to kick some ass.
Despite being wildly uneven, and in spite of some truly horrific acting and amateur direction, TMNT does manage to make you feel just like an 11-year-old kid on multiple levels. Sometimes, it manages to make you giddy and excitable, grinning ear to ear. Sometimes it makes you feel woozy and sick, as if you ate too many Pizza Crunchabungas. Sometimes it makes your mind wander, wishing the adults would shut the hell up so something cool can happen. And, at all points, it makes you feel kind of stupid and hungry for pizza. Pizza Hut pizza. That sounds really good right now. Dammit! Well played, Mr. Bay. Well played.