I’ve probably seen the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” more than any other movie (granted, most of those viewings were from 1990-92). That film is a perfect blend of respect for the source material with mass appeal, and the three sequels – although they have their moments — don’t match its quality or heart. In a perfect world, Nickelodeon’s return to the saga – 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (referred to here as “TMNT ’14”) – would tap into what worked in 1990, while adding untapped villains in cinematic debuts.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, so “TMNT ’14” launches a new continuity to appeal to that ephemeral “next generation.” Judging it on its own terms, I’m happy to say it’s not nearly as bad as it could’ve been. I adjusted to the new look of the Turtles (with noses and a bulkier build) and the writers and voice actors (all new to the saga) get their personalities right.
I like how Donnie is nerdier than ever, and how Leo and Raph have mutual respect, even though their never-ending low-key feud continues. The joke of Mikey crushing on April (Megan Fox) grows thin, and it’s actually heartbreaking if you think about how this is his first love and April obviously does not feel the same way, for myriad reasons. Indeed, four of their unshakable differences are in the film’s title.
Director Jonathan Liebesman’s target audience is not people who will think too long about Mikey’s inner feelings or the nature of the quartet’s brotherhood. It’s people who like CGI action sprinkled with quips. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring about any of the fights, especially those that involve Shredder, who is already more or less Super Shredder, like a Transformers version of Edward Scissorhands. Any mood and menace created by Tohoru Masamune’s shadowed, maskless Shredder is squandered when he’s in suited form – a.k.a. CGI form.
An action/fight sequence that flows down a snow-covered hill near the estate of magnate Eric Sacks (William Fichtner, as a character new to the franchise) could’ve been in one of the more recent CGI-heavy “Fast & Furious” films if it didn’t have mutant turtles in it. It’s well-designed for what it is, but I’m not interested in what it is.
Although the Turtles have credited actors, they are computer creations enough of the time that I think of them that way all the time. I never feel like I get a good look at them. On the other hand, the palette of “TMNT ’14” is a visual delight, as the sewer lair is lit by colored bulbs and various TV screens and computer monitors (Donnie’s setup would make the NSA envious).
“TMNT ’14” is smart to dodge comparisons with the original by coming up with a new plot, although it does use some homages, notably a final rooftop showdown. Even the origin story is different: The Turtles and Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub, and able to use a long tail to trip opponents) are lab creations now, as borrowed from the IDW comics.
The film also borrows from the supervillainous stylings of the 1987 cartoon by centering on a plague-spewing device atop a tower. The best lift from the ’toon, though, is Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), April’s cameraman at Channel 6, whose personality is not whiny this time. He’s awkwardly crushing on April, but he’s not a complete butt of jokes.
The writers give a younger take on April (even though Fox is older here than Judith Hoag was in the original); she gets assigned to soft features because of her appealing looks, but she’s a newshound at heart. I can’t go so far to say Fox is great, but she’s a decent audience surrogate in a film where the Turtles and Splinter are slightly out of reach because they aren’t in Jim Henson Studios suits that ground them in reality.
In 1990, I would’ve jumped at the chance to see “TMNT II” at any point. (It was only a one-year wait, but it seemed longer.) For this reboot, I have no desire to watch it multiple times or to jump into 2016’s “Out of the Shadows” (although I’ll get to it eventually). “TMNT ’14” is not embarrassing to the franchise – and it’s admittedly better than 1993’s “TMNT III” — but it doesn’t come close to the heart, style and freshness of the original.