Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Turtles on Steroids

I've been mildly curious, though extremely skeptical, since I heard of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (and despite my vow never again to watch another Michael Bay-directed film, the fact that he merely produced this one provided a convenient loophole). I was in Jr. High when they first became huge, so I was the perfect age to be into them (although I remember my first introduction was in fifth grade when my comic book fanatic friend Merlin Carson showed me a role-playing game book cover and based on the title alone I was incredulous; "This will never catch on," I actually said). The film's miserable critical reception -- 20% on rottentomatoes -- almost dissuaded me, but if there's anything I learned from last summer's Lone Ranger, it's that if a movie looks at all interesting to you, even if it is universally reviled, you should see it and decide for yourself. So, I saw and it and I decided for myself.

Probably the best thing to be said for this new TMNT is that it is not nearly the disaster it could have been. It is, for the most part, pretty harmless junk, neither offending nor engaging. Brad Keefe said, "It isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Mind you, it isn't good. It isn't even 'so bad it's good.' It's just there. I wish it was better. Or worse." Well, I don't necessarily wish it was worse, but I can sympathize with his indifference.

Naturally I still have my issues. I don't like the design of these new turtles. First off, I could never really get over their new nostrils. They just bug me. Secondly, in trying to make them appear "cooler" to today's audiences, the filmmakers have adorned their bodies/shells with perepheranlai (sunglasses, necklaces, etc) making them look like a cross between military grunts and homeless people. The cobbled-together nature of it makes a kind of sense I guess, but it ends up just looking cluttered. I miss the sleekness and simplicity of the characters' looks from the old cartoon and movies (where they were distinguished only by their weapons and the color of their masks). The surfer-speak has been understandably dropped (though replaced with a hip-hop/gangta lingo) and the turtles have also been made taller and more muscular. These are more intense, agressive incarnations of these characters. Grittier and edgier heroes in a halfshell for a darker, more cynical youth. At least they got their personalities and inter-relationships right. Leonardo is still the leader and constantly butting heads with the rebellious Raphael. Donatello is still the techno-geek and Michelangelo the laid-back one. My favorite moments were probably when the turtles had to work together, the themes of family loyalty and teamwork having always been one of the most appealing elements of these stories for me. I also liked the elevator gag.

The non-reptilian characters in this whole affair are pretty forgettable. Nowhere is there a human with the charisma and screen presence of Judith Hoag or Elias Koteas. The always reliable William Fichtner (who was also in Lone Ranger) comes the closest to actually being interesting. Whoopi Goldberg and Will Arnett are wasted while Megan Fox -- and I realize this is not exactly breaking news -- is really a bad actress and embarrasses herself in just about every scene. The turtles' nemesis, the Shredder, is barely a human character as he spends most of the film in his now bulked-up, servo-assisted suit (which eerily resembles the Silver Samurai from last year's Wolverine) and becomes fully CGI as soon as he starts fighting in a wildly animated manner. This is typical of the kind of excess displayed in a film that thinks more is better. Everything is on steroids.

With one exception, the action sequences are fairly ho-hum, although director Jonathan Liebseman seems to possess a bit more of an appreciation for spatial coherence than his producer. The one scene I found enjoyable and, dare I say it, even a bit exciting was the chase down the snowy mountainside.

Finally, while they wisely abandoned the lame alien idea (there is even a line of dialogue in the film acknowledging so), their changes to the backstory are not exactly improvements. The turtles and Splinter (voiced here by Tony Shalhoub) are now subjects in a mutation experiment who were saved from a laboratory fire by a young April O'Neil and dumped down a sewer. This sacrifices one of the aspects of the turtles' origin story I always liked (and demonstrates a growing trend in superhero/comic book adaptations that I don't like): namely, the seeming randomness of their genesis. Like the rebooted Spider-man franchise (from which this movie basically steals its plot/climax), the turtles are no longer just victims of circumstances whose transformations result from a freak accident (they stumbled on a broken cannister leaking a radioactive ooze). Call me nit-picky, but I miss the days when heroes were created through chance. I don't want Peter Parker to be the only guy who, through genetic pre-determination, could possibly have become Spider-man. I want his being bitten by the super-spider to be a coincidence and his decision of how to use his newfound powers to be what makes him a hero. That is more compelling to me. Same with Batman. I've always preferred the idea that Bruce Wayne's parents were gunned down by some anonymous hood who disappears rather than them being assassinated as part of a big conspiracy. What happened to the days when an ordinary schmoe (or turtle) was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was struck by lightning or hit by a meteorite or encountered toxic waste or survived an explosion or something? Why do their heroic births always have to result from design now (I mean, obviously from a storyteller's perspective it's by design, but I am talking about within the universe of the story itself)? I miss those days.

Oh, and rather than being the pet of a Chinese master from whom he learns the martial arts, Splinter teaches himself ninjitsu from an abandoned book and passes the knowledge on to his "sons." I know expecting realism is futile in a movie featuring six-foot talking turtles, but that just struck me as really stupid and lazy.

In the end, I didn't hate this Turtles, even thought it is mostly devoid of the charm and self-awareness that made most previous incarnations amusing... especially the live-action 1990 film (featuring those remarkable suits designed by Jim Henson's creature shop) which for my money is still the best Turtles movie to date. The kids in the theatre where I saw this one, however, seemed to like it. Cowabunga, dude.

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