Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. The timing of the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is going to prove to be a giant miscalculation, I think.
From a straight business point of view, it looks like the studio gambled that Guardians of the Galaxy would be too weird to grab audiences. Obviously they were wrong to bet against Marvel right now, but there's a bigger, creative ramification of seeing this Ninja Turtles movie hot off the heels of the gloriously bizarre Guardians of the Galaxy.
James Gunn and crew fully embraced the weirdness of their characters and the audience followed suit. The creative minds behind the new TMNT reboot seemed to be embarrassed about their characters. So much of the movie is infected with “Look at how stupid this is!” lines that by the 20th or so time a character stopped the story to make sure the audience knew the filmmakers were aware how stupid the concept of the film is I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and go “You're right, this is stupid. What am I doing here watching this, then?”
Here's the thing: I'm the exact demo for this movie. I know on the surface it's a kid's film and they definitely didn't exclude that audience, but there's so many references to the '80s stuff and the tone is weirdly dark, so they are clearly wanting to tickle the nostalgia bone of many '80s kids. I was obsessed with the cartoon in my younger days. I hunted down the toys like a madman. I took Tae Kwon Do because I wanted to be just like the Turtles (it didn't hurt that my dojo was run by Ernie Reyes Sr., the dad of the guy who was the fight double for Donatello in the first movie and who later played Keno, the pizza boy, in The Secret of the Ooze). As a teenager I tracked down the original comics.
If there's any adult on this earth that wants to see a real kick-ass live action Ninja Turtles film it's me. The 1990 movie was a big deal for 9 year old me, but even then I wished it would have gone weirder. I wanted to see Baxter Stockman mutate into a fly. I wanted to see Rocksteady and Bebop goofing up the place. I wanted to see the creepy Rat King and the Technodrome and Krang and the Mousers... In short, I wanted all the weird shit that none of the movies indulged in. They'll travel back in time, but no, it's too weird to have a brain alien controlling a giant robot body.
There's an excuse for those early movies, but when you're doing a big budget reboot with the wonders of CGI at your disposal how do you still ignore all that?
When turning this question over in my mind I go back to that palpable sense of embarrassment I felt radiating off the screen as I watched this new movie. Of course there's no brain alien or punk rhino or scientist fly. If they're going to laugh off the premise of mutated teenaged turtle ninjas for half the movie how could you expect them to embrace the truly weird shit of that universe, either from the original Eastman/Laird books or the cartoons?
Maybe the thought was to establish the universe and then go weird in the sequel? Maybe there's a post-credits stinger that wasn't on this early screening that teases a weirder world out there? I don't know. I do know the movie is going for a grounded reality feel.
I'll give the new Ninja Turtles movie credit for looking really sharp. There are a few action set pieces that really show off the character of each Turtle. That's when the movie is at its best, actually. They get the individual personalities of the four turtles right, but that only seemed to underline the dunderheaded over-complication of their re-jiggered backstory.
Gone is any personal connection to Shredder or the Foot Clan. Splinter teaching them martial arts is a throwaway thought. He's just a rat that becomes smart (and big) and is worried his adopted turtle sons will have to defend themselves later, so he luckily comes across a couple of Beginner's Guide to Martial Arts Books in the sewer. The way they tie their origin to April O'Neil is weird and not explained very well. I'd go into more depth here, it really is a spoilery moment, so let's just say it's really muddy how April's character would be in a certain place at that exact time to help set the Turtles' origin in motion and still not know any of the big twist moments in the movie.
Putting April front and center in this reboot is one of the film's better ideas and I give some credit to Megan Fox for really giving the role her all, but that doesn't make it any less cringe-worthy when she dramatically shouts out “Shredder!” in the middle of the big finale. She's invested, but still not that great of an actor, sadly. If all you want from April is for her to be really hot and motivated to make a name for herself then that's about all the dimension the character has here.
Will Arnett just feels lost in the film. He plays a character named Vernon, the dweeby Channel 6 news van driver who is hopelessly devoted to April. Man, he tries to inject the character with some fun, but he always feels like he's out of step, trying to catch up. His character is so vanilla and superfluous that even a personality as strong as Arnett's can't really elevate it.
William Fichtner fares better, but not by much. Once you get a full view of his character and his character's story he just becomes a standard archetype you've seen a hundred times before. And no, he's not Shredder. That would have been crazy and weird and nuts and might have been so out there that it would have made the movie more interesting. I would preface that with a spoiler warning, but “Fichtner-is-Shredder” was only ever online speculation. The film doesn't try to mislead you into thinking he's Shredder, so damn it, it's not a spoiler!
But speaking of Shredder, let's talk about him in this movie. He's re-goddamn-diculous. He's massive, totally Michael Bayified... It's not enough that he has armor with razors on it, he's gotta be a Swiss Army knife, and not one of those cheap dollar knives that just has the blade and a nail file. He's one of those expensive Swiss Army jobs that you'd get your dad for Father's Day that has the screwdriver, toothpick, corkscrew and all that jazz. Shredder's the one character they decided to go really big with, so I can't fault them for it. At least they went for fun with his tech-enhanced armor that can shoot out knives and call them back at will.
I only wish there was more to him as a character than “badass fighter dude who wants to destroy New York.” There's no personal connection to the Turtles or Splinter, so the result is that he's just “bad guy” and that's it. They don't try to give him any depth at all.
The Turtle's designs are the least of this film's problems. I got used to them pretty quickly because the voicework and animation was done well... although, I will say Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo was pretty distracting. Not a fan of that voice casting because I just heard the Jackass guy talking out of the stoic one of the group. But that's more of a nitpick. I thought I'd hate the designs in action, but I accepted them pretty immediately within the story.
Jonathan Liebsman is a journeyman director. That's not a slam on the guy. He's improved as a shooter from movie to movie and this is his best looking movie to date. The reason I bring it up is because I'm not all that sure how much of his personal vision is in the movie and how much was him servicing the script and producers. In other words, I don't know who to lay the blame on the flick fizzling so much with me.
As it stands, the new Ninja Turtles movie is perfectly serviceable for young kids or someone who just wants a big, dumb expensive action movie to stare at for a couple hours, but it could have been so much more. The pacing is quick and there's a ton of eye-candy, but on the whole it's a big, limp and hollow big studio tentpole mess. I'd wager even people who don't want more out of an action flick will forget about it quickly after leaving the theater.