The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has successfully relaunched and re-imagined the TMNT franchise for a new generation — and I’m very happy about that. However, the costumes and concepts outshine the story and characters.
I’d read that Michael Bay initially wanted the film to be called Ninja Turtles, and although that was when the turtles were aliens, it is more true to the featured film as these are ninja turtles as opposed to brothers. Therein lies the problem because the concept of “family” that the “Teenage” in their namesake represents is lost. Without that fraternity, you have a handful of beautifully drawn characters that are as robotic as Bay’s Transformers; best-suited to one-liners and grunts.
Costumes and the Turtles’ Designs
Let me start with the positives as the turtles look great and have been re-imagined in a unique way. For the first time, the turtles are all very distinct, and even if you’re colorblind, you’ll recognize each of the four apart from each other. Each turtle’s costume evokes their personality and role in the group… it’s just unfortunate that that level of care wasn’t taken with the story or dialogue.
Leonardo (the leader) is minimalist, fostering function over fashion, and his attire is the most formal. He obviously holds himself in high regard, taking himself more seriously, and the samurai-inspired design implies high honor. He stands out from the group while looking like a model teenage mutant ninja turtle (disciplined and poised). The katana almost exemplify the distance he maintains from his enemy and brothers.
Raphael (the warrior) has a knobby and scarred shell (with duct tape patching, no less). His arms dwarf the other turtles by comparison and his face and arms are scarred from battle, likely due to recklessness and because his sai require close-combat. To add to his rebellious and juvenile nature, he’s actually branded his right arm (as a teenager might get a tattoo). The belts around his waist also imply that he’s wound tight and the patchwork leather behind his legs epitomize a hard hide — he’s not someone who opens up easily. He wears a cowl vs a bandanna and, as we’ve seen in 2007, Raph has been known to take the superhero vigilante approach, and there is a line alluding to that in the film. More subtly, the eye holes for his cowl are much smaller than everyone else’s, hiding him a bit more and giving him a beady, squinted look (I’ve read he was modeled after Clint Eastwood, and it’s most apparent here). Then, to “youthanize” him a bit they add some cool shades.
Michelangelo (the prankster) is shorter, stubbier than the rest and his face is much rounder as though he’s less developed than his brothers (in short, younger [pun intended]). He wears beaded necklaces (with shells) around his neck, much like the Hawaiian lies to exemplify his carefree nature and go-with-the-flow attitude; that the nunchaku are loose and flowy adds to his nature as well. Additionally, Mikey is the most open and conversational, so the fact that his nunchuks require close quarters is a good parallel. There’s a hoody tied around his waist, making him a bit more hip and connected (receptive) to society and the outside world — he emulates human fashion. Additionally, his kneepads scream punk skater.
Then there’s Donatello (the nerd) who is the leanest of the four and has high-tech gadgets across his back and atop his head. He also has glasses taped together to show that his intelligence isn’t necessarily empowering as he’s shy and lacks self-esteem.
In addition, the turtles’ costumes look like they were strewn together from garbage found in the sewer (without looking nasty, mind you). Based on my research, Kelton Cram was the concept artist behind these re-envisioned turtles and all I can say is he is an expert craftsman with a boundless imagination. Cram put more effort and heart into the film than Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Evan Daugherty (the three writers).
The Writing and Theme of Family
The script better serves a novel than a screenplay as we’re told much more than we’re shown. We seldom see the turtles bonding or playing together or acting like family. We’re told the turtles’ calling card is the Japanese symbol for family, but we don’t see it. Splinter talks about raising the turtles as his sons… but we’re shown that he’s more of a sensei than a father. Then, there’s April O’Neil and her bond with her father… another thing we’re told, not shown.
All this talking vs showing is the main problem with the script, because it has to explain the turtles instead of showing them. They convolute the origin to make them engineered for greatness instead of heroes of happenstance (much like The Amazing Spider-Man before it). Changing the origin is fine, but when you spend the majority of the running time on humans trying to explain the serendipity of lazy writing, you have a problem. The turtles become featured, not the focus.
Being unable to explain their own origin (and that being the sole purpose of the film), the turtles service the action of the film and not develop as characters. It’s why, when they mention “family” to one another in dialogue, it seems out of place. A great example is when Raphael gives his “presumed” dying speech about how he loves his brothers and doesn’t mean to be mean… but he literally just risked life and limb to save his brothers, so if I didn’t know the character before the film, I’d be left wondering why he’s talking that way at all.
In regards to the acting, Alan Ritchson and Johnny Knoxville are spot on in their roles of Raphael and Leonardo respectively. (And, for a little tidbit of trivia, Knoxville actually took voice acting lessons for Bad Grandpa, but struggled with it for that film, so it’s kinda neat to see he’s conquered that hurdle.)
Noel Fisher has the right voice for Michelangelo, but the script slaughters the character. Instead of a the fun-loving quipster, Mikey is made into a pervy turtle trying to get into Megan Fox’s pants which is made doubly weird since O’Neil is the turtles’ surrogate mother. I understand trying to show teenage hormones, but incestuous bestiality is beyond my threshold of tolerance.
To make up for Michelangelo’s lack of wit, Will Arnett serves as the comic relief character, Vernon, and he does a tremendous job of balancing the pervyness of his character with actual humor. Indeed he wants to sleep with O’Neil, but he’s not a creeper about it.
Then there’s Megan Fox, who I’ve never had a problem with in the past, but here she is unmistakably bad. She has no emotion in her face or inflection — she’s more wooden than Heidi Montag. Either she did this film as a public apology to Michael Bay or her overt sexualization in previous films distracted me from her acting, but here, in a conservative outfit, she is (coincidentally) unbelievably bad.
With the origin out of the way, I’m inclined to believe the sequel will only improve, but I’m not instantly sold on the idea. As the first, in an intended franchise, this world-building introduction failed to whet my appetite for more. While the redesigned turtles served as a tasty appetizer, the main course left me with an empty belly.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
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