Too much Megan Fox, a lot of obvious jokes, but surprisingly better than expected. And no, they aren’t aliens, that would be stupid.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Back in 2012 when this film was announced, it’s fair to say it was met mostly with dread and trepidation. “Why is Michael Bay stomping all over my childhood” was never far from my Twitter feed. The rumour that “he’s making them into aliens?!” caused many a nerd to spontaneously combust. “First Transformers, and now this! What’s next? Ghostbusters?!” Well, as a matter of fact…
I digress. The point is, a lot of people (including myself) were disappointed with how the Transformers franchise turned out. If you were also born at any point during the mid-late 1980’s you were probably raised on a diet of LSD-inspired cartoons full of vibrant colours, moral messages and cheesier-than-hell dialogue too. Whether you ran around your garden pointing 99p plastic swords in the air shouting “I HAVE THE POWER!” at the top of your voice, or sobbed uncontrollably when your latest Transformer toy inevitably broke within a week of purchasing it, at some point you will have come across four green bandanna-wearing crime-fighting mutated turtles (that are also teenagers) and their Japanese martial-arts master and mentor, a man-sized sewer-dwelling rat. Affection was fought for and won on a weekly basis as they thwarted yet another dastardly plan from the Shredder, Krang and the Foot Clan.
But is it fair to accuse Michael Bay of ruining your precious childhood memories? Were the shows and films actually ever any good in the first place? It’s hard to ignore the argument that it is most likely nostalgia clouding your judgement as to just how good these shows were and that maybe, just maybe, Bay is attempting to improve on them; as opposed to purposefully opening his bowels all over your 7 year old self for no better reason than because he can.
When the reboot of TMNT was first confirmed, this question came before me and I had to check for myself. I revisited the original three live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, as well as a few others (How It All Began, which I used to own on VHS, and the 2007 animated movie) and found, to my surprise, the first two films at least were surprisingly still enjoyable for what they are. The special effects were decent, particularly the costume designs, and the tone of the movie was a lot darker than I had expected it to be. The series got progressively worse as it wore on; word of warning, the cartoon series does not hold up as well as you’d hope. But then, that’s not really that surprising, is it.
As for this reboot / remake / whatever you want to call it, it’s not without its problems, but it’s unfair to disqualify it simply for being based on something that – and let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment – was never that good in the first place.
The first thing I should point out now before carrying on with this review, because a lot of people seem to be making this mistake (understandably so), is that it isn’t actually directed by Michael Bay. He only produced it. If you have a problem with the way this movie is directed, you need to lay the blame at the feet of Jonathan Liebesman, the man responsible for Darkness Falls, Battle: Loss Angeles, and the surprisingly not-as-terrible-as-the-previous-one Wrath of the Titans. Not that it actually makes a difference who directed it because for all intents and purposes, it looks almost exactly like a Michael Bay film. The only give away that it’s not is the fact that it’s only an hour and 40 minutes long rather than two hours and 40 minutes long, and it just doesn’t look as good as some of his stuff does.
The point of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they were first devised as a comic-book was to lampoon the (then) current trend for all things ninja. In the 80’s, people like Sho Kosugi and martial arts action films were everywhere you turned. Eventually, a Playmates toy line and cartoon series later, they themselves became far more popular and famous than the pop culture references they initially parodied. Today, this doesn’t really leave the series as anything culturally relevant or necessary any more, but it’s still nice to know that generation after generation can get to experience them in one way or another, albeit in the shape of the comics getting popular again, or a new cartoon series that is supposedly quite entertaining, or as it happens, more movie adaptations.
As I said earlier, this isn’t a film without its own problems. They don’t lie with the fact that the movie exists at all, as non-relevant as it may be, but with lots of other areas. To coin a 90’s phrase, the action scenes are WHACK. Not because they’re boring or bland, but because you cannot see what one steroid-enhanced muscle-bound mask-wearing Shrek-like mutant is doing with the other steroid-enhanced muscle-bound mask-wearing Shrek-like mutant. The camera appears to constantly be at waist height pointing upwards, whilst simultaneously spinning around the action that we’re meant to be interested in, and wobbling all over the place. Making out what is happening on screen during big CGI fight sequences has been a failing of Bay’s in the past. He looked to have improved on it somewhat during Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it appears Liebesman didn’t see that particular movie. Instead, it has all the trappings of the first Transformers movie.
I’d wager that most people going to see this film are doing so to spend time watching the four heroes in a half shell get up to some pizza-related hijinks, kick some foot-clan arse and have an epic showdown with Shredder. Therefore, it seems an awfully bizarre decision to spend quite so much time on the films human characters, the yellow-jacketed news-anchor April O’Neil and her cameraman Vernon Fenwick (played by Megan Fox and Will Arnett respectively). There’s simply too much time spent waiting for April to meet the avenging vigilante turtles, and then not enough time spent in their company. They should have been the focus of the film. It’s their story that we wanted to watch. You know, the guys whose name is in the title. It’s not called April O’Neil & The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It detracted from what should have been a film primarily cartoony in nature.
However, what I will say in its favour is that some of the humour, not all of it, but some of it, is quite amusing. The time we do spend with the turtles does raise the odd chuckle. A lot of the gags are crude or obvious, and pop-culture references always seem to be cheap and easy to raise laughs, but it is definitely a comedy adventure film with goofy humour and slapstick in it that’s done moderately well.
Michelangelo probably steals the show in many respects, whilst Raphael comes across as cool as he ever does. Arguments could be made for the fact that his friction with the appointed leader Leonardo seems forced and underdeveloped, but allowances can be made in these circumstances. It is aimed at kids, after all. There’s no need to expand on every single suggested character trait. Donatello is mainly left to be the “get us out of this situation with your book-smarts” character, but none of the four are offensive interpretations of the gang. Whenever they are on screen, the film zips by. None of the performances here are particularly note-worthy. Will Arnett, Megan Fox, William Fitchner, they’re not here because they’re great actors, but they all play their parts well enough for me to not complain.
So, that brings me back to my original question. Has Michael Bay’s plan to improve on the most common interpretation of the TMNT, that late eighties cartoon, ultimately been successful? Well, it’s hard to beat nostalgia. For a lot of people, the quality of the original cartoon bears little consequence in how much enjoyment you can gain from reminiscing about the good old days. Context aside, approaching this as if there had never been any other TMNT interpretations before, it’s passable. It’s short, it’s occasionally fun as often as it is frustrating, and it certainly hasn’t pissed all over this blokes inner child.
You can hear Owen, Callum and Steve chat about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the upcoming podcast due out in the next few days.