Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014)

Starring Megan Fox, Will Arnett and William Fichtner
Written by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Rated PG-13 - Language, violence
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Trailer

April O'Neil (Megan Fox) is a young reporter for Channel 6 News who is tired of doing fluff pieces. She's much more interested in covering the crime wave sweeping through New York City and unmasking the mysterious Foot Clan that has the city's populace and politicians frightened. One night, April is among the hostages taken by the Foot in a subway attack, and is again rescued by someone or some thing. She races up to the rooftop and discovers that the mysterious vigilantes fighting back against the foot are actually four massive, mutant turtles: Leonardo (Pete Ploszek doing motion capture, voice of Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard).

The turtles and their master, Splinter (Danny Woodburn doing motion capture, voice of Tony Shalhoub) live underground in the sewers. The turtles train to be the protectors of the citizens of New York.

Meanwhile, billionaire scientist Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) has secretly partnered with the Foot's leader, Shredder (Tohoru Masmune) to renew a decades-old plan that will make Sachs incredibly rich and bring the Foot back into the world terrorism stage in a big way. And the only ones that stand in the way are four teenage mutant ninja turtles.

Much grousing has been done online in the lead up to the release of this film. In particular, fans were upset over supposed plans to change the origins of the turtles into aliens, and then later apparently over the fact that the designs of the turtles includes nostrils.

I honestly question the sanity of anyone who gets frothy at the mouth whether a talking CGI turtle who is also a ninja has nostrils.

And as for that first thing? There's brief mention that the mutagen that gave the turtles their massive size and increased intelligence might be from outer space, but that's about it. Otherwise, the real radical changes to the turtles' origin is actually tying them to young April O'Neil (Malina Weissman in flashbacks and old video footage) and her father. And ultimately it ends up making very little difference anyway.

But, of course, just because fanboy griping proves to be pointless and stupid that doesn't mean that "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is a great film. It's not. It's also not a terrible one, either. It is, however, thoroughly mediocre.

Much like Liebesman's "Battle: Los Angeles" this film is technically proficient and even kinda cool at parts, but it's also not very deep... at all. The thing that it does best is keep the personalities of the turtles intact. Each one of them acts exactly as you'd expect. And they all interact as you'd expect, too: Donnie is a tech nerd, and his shell is fitted with lots of nifty gadgets; Leo is the balanced leader of the group; Mikey is a constant goofball; and Raph is an angry loner. The assembled cast, though motion-captured and in Leo's case voiced by a different actor, all work well together. The turtles' quips and cracks to and at each other are a highlight of the film (a brief elevator scene late in the film is a howler). Tony Shalhoub doesn't get much to do as the voice of Splinter other than dole out a lot of exposition that it seems absurd that he even knows (not the first time in this franchise that's happened).  The problem is that while they're easily recognizable as your favorite heroes on the half-shell, we never really dig into their characters.

Part of the problem is that the movie simply doesn't have the time to do so. Clocking in at 101 minutes, including roughly 10 minutes of credits thanks to the sheer amount of digital artistry on display, this film is quick. It's mercifully only a little more than half the runtime of Michael Bay's fourth "Transformers" flick. It gets right down to business, taking only the barest amount of time to set up the barest amount of plot and then that's it. There are a few supporting characters, but other than Will Arnett's jokey cameraman Vern, they all get about a minute and a half of screentime. Whoopi Goldberg appears in exactly two scenes as April's boss at Channel 6. The cast lists a Baxter Stockman, and he could have been one of the several scientists who are briefly in a few shots here or there, but I can't tell.

The script also falters in giving us any understanding of the Foot Clan. Here, aside from Shredder and his hench-woman Karai (Minae Noji), they're not ninjas or robots as they've been in past incarnations, but rather some kind of paramilitary group. But who are they and what do they want? Shredder talks about returning the Foot to former greatness, and he's all scarred up... but we never learn why the Foot has fallen from that supposed greatness or why it is that Shredder's face is like it is. We don't even learn his name. Fichtner's character, Eric Sachs, appears to be a nod to Shredder's name in the comics, Oroku Saki.

Additionally, Shredder's plan is painfully stupid unless he was planning on betraying Sachs at some point - but we're given no indication of that, so I'm just going to go with the idea that the script for this film has failed once again.

Fans of the franchise will recognize a lot of what's going on here, making for an experience that can be a little bit deeper than a moviegoer with no prior knowledge. There are plenty of nods to other incarnations of the franchise, including the turtle van gag ruined in the TV spots. But nods and homages, cute as they are, can't make up for the lack of depth in everything else.

The film's other saving grace is that despite how paper-thin it all is, it moves along quickly and presents a few reasonably entertaining action sequences. A highlight is definitely that sledding/avalanche sequence showcased in all the trailers. Not only does it serve to take the turtles out of their native urban habitat for a little while, but it's also the films most thrilling and clever sequence - and its best use of 3D, if you've opted to see it that way. Other than this single sequence, I can't recommend seeing "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in 3D.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is a mediocre experience. While technically proficient, and featuring the characters you love and recognize acting the way you'd expect, it's not the worst diversion you could take. But there's no real depth here. If you're a fan and you really need to see this one up on the big screen, go for it. The rest of you will probably be better served waiting for a rental.