The Bay-ification of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
For all the talk of the nefarious Foot Clan in this movie, there’s a far bigger threat to not only the Turtles, but any popular cartoon series of the ‘80s or ‘90s. His name is Michael Bay, and it seems he cannot be stopped, especially if this insipid reboot of TMNT is anything to go by.
Despite the name of Jonathan Liebesman (best known for bringing us several barely watchable films) appearing on the directorial credits of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), it’s Bay whose greasy prints are all over this rotten remake. From the overblown action sequences and product placement to its substandard characters and storyline, this film bears all the hallmarks of a perfectly serviceable ‘toon franchise being bled of all its charm by the same man still milking the Transformers for all they’re worth.
But let’s step back for a second and break down what’s so bad about this latest incarnation of the Turtles that makes even Vanilla Ice’s rap on the 1991 release seem acceptable.
First, we have an early focus on April O’Neil (Megan Fox), played by an actress who brings every ounce of vacuity she can muster to the role of an inept New York reporter. Tired of broadcasting morning edition fluff pieces, she complains regularly (and annoyingly) to her cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). Understandably, he’s more interested in her ass than her ambition—it’s where all her talent lies, after all—and this little obsession takes up a significant portion of the movie. Although it does provide the opportunity for the occasional Arrested Development reference, that’s about all the comedy the movie can wring out of whatever obscene amount of money they paid to rope Gob into this mess.
April’s obsession with a bigger story has her on the trail of the Foot Clan, a group of shadowy ninjas who for some reason choose to engage in mid-level crimes like commercial theft and mugging to make a (stupid) name for themselves. After coincidentally stumbling across them in the act a couple of times, as well as stalking their victims (sponsored by Skype!) for further information, April also learns that there are vigilantes at work in NYC, fighting the Foot Clan without anyone noticing… except our intrepid reporter, of course.
Unfortunately, April has very little in the way of journalistic skills, and believes that her editor Bernadette (Whoopi Goldberg, phoning it in) will put resources on this story based on a few blurry printouts and a bit of googling. Inevitably, Bernadette views her with as much contempt as the audience already does, and quickly fires her.
Frustrated, April goes to greater lengths to get further proof (or, really, any proof at all) that the vigilantes are real. She soon gets caught up in a subway hostage situation organized by the Foot’s leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), designed to lure in the Turtles. It works, and the movie finally gets to the point that the original 1990 film hit straight out of the gate: April in trouble = Turtles to the rescue. It’s good to have so much time set aside for April’s character development; if only they’d spent that time actually developing her character, rather than giving us lots of questionable comedy and pushing Microsoft products.
At long last, April meets the turtles face to face, and for the heroes of a kids’ film, they’re bizarrely menacing. They’re monstrously huge, with way too detailed ape-like facial features which are only made worse by their creepy mo-cap expressiveness. I’d go through their names and personalities, but you can easily replay the theme song in your head to get the gist of it. (In an odd casting note, they brought in Johnny Knoxville, who hasn’t been “teenage” in quite some time, to voice Leonardo, but the other three turtles are voiced by their mostly unknown mo-cap actors. It’s like the filmmakers realized way too late that overdubbing celebrity voices wasn’t worth the cost or effort.)
From here, the “explosions and excitement” portion of Bay’s filmmaking kicks in, with crazy camera shots and improbable action sequences flowing like so much waste through the New York City sewer system the Turtles inhabit. April soon gets to meet the turtles’ patriarch Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub), who in this version is basically just a six-foot-tall sewer rat. A convoluted backstory expansion not present in the original series brings April’s deceased father and Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) into the picture as business partners, who years ago worked together to develop a mutagen that was tested on a rat and four box turtles for… some reason, under the codename of “Project Renaissance” (hence the turtles’ names)
Sacks initially presents himself as a good guy, but turns out to have stolen his partner’s idea and killed him off to fully profit from it. April is also revealed as the young heroine who saved the turtles and rat from the fire her father died in, leaving them right next to a sewer where the mutagen already in their bloodstreams gave them the extreme strength we see today. Of course, this raises the question of why April didn’t attempt to save her father from the fire as well, but you can’t fault a girl for having her priorities in order.
All of this fluff makes little sense, but is really only around to set the scene for Shredder and Sacks to combine forces against the Turtles, and extract the mutagen from their blood to use in an attack on New York. After all manner of unlikely action, from a controlled multi-vehicle slide down the side of a snowy mountain, to the final showdown atop a skyscraper in NYC, the Turtles succeed in preventing the mutagen’s release on the city and defeat Shredder once and for all, despite the fact that he’s a walking knife rack and should be utterly untouchable.
The lightweight plot and vapid characters could be forgiven if this were a likable Turtles romp that successfully recreated the original, but it isn’t. The closest Bay and his underling Liebesman come is in some snappy exchanges between the Turtles, who actually remain true to their intended personalities and manage the occasional comic moment of note.
Everywhere else, however, the influence of Bay reaches in and either overlooks or inflates everything good about the series, to the point where it becomes almost unwatchable for fans. And for non-fans, there’s little more, with the action unintentionally comical and the characters annoying, tedious, or both. Also, did we really need the gratuitous Megan Fox butt shots (a Michael Bay trademark!), or Michelangelo talking about his “shell tightening” when she’s around?
If you were on the fence about this one for some inexplicable reason, here’s your final warning: steer clear. Even if you don’t pay to watch the movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) is 101 minutes of your life you can never get back. Bay has Transformer-ized the Turtles, and the only real advantage this film has over Age of Extinction is that it’s over an hour shorter.