Past the Popcorn: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

by Jeff Walls

For the first time in over twenty years, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back in a live-action film.  Whereas the previous three live-action efforts featured actors in costumes, the latest movie takes advantage of motion capture technology.  The movie is produced by Michael Bay, but as he already has another franchise based on a 1980s cartoon, he leaves the directing duties on this film to Jonathan Liebesman.  The technology is definitely there for Liebesman to make a better TMNT film, but the key to this movie’s success will certainly rely on whether or not the Turtles in the film are characters that the audience can buy into.

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-insetThe movie opens with a stylish, comic book themed credits sequence, before introducing us to Megan Fox as reporter April O’Neil.  April may be low on the newsroom totem pole, but she is looking to change that by breaking a big story about a gang of criminals knows as “The Foot Clan.”  One night, while staking out a robbery on the docks, she witnesses the work of a mysterious vigilante who stops The Foot from stealing a large container of chemicals.  In hopes of running into this mysterious hero again, she next gets herself into a hostage situation in the subway.  After she and others are rescued, she follows her savior to the rooftop and discovers that there are actually four of them; well that, and that they are six-foot tall talking turtles.

After she regains consciousness and realizes that she actually has a history with these four reptiles and their rat sensei, April runs to tell the only man she thinks who can help her: wealthy scientist Eric Sacks.  April’s father used to work with Sacks in the lab, so she trusts him.  She shouldn’t, however, because it turns out that Sacks is working with the leader of The Foot Clan, called The Shredder.  Sacks believes that the Turtles are the key to his and Shredder’s plan to take over the world and so he uses April to get close to them.  The Turtles, still just immature teenagers, must learn to work together if they are to save not only themselves, but the rest of New York City.

After the creative opening credit sequence that seems inspired by the game “Fruit Ninja,” the movie stumbles out of the gate with some truly ugly visuals.  When we first meet April, a combination of shaky camerawork and horribly blurry 3D imagery makes the movie nearly unwatchable.  The 3D technology is the most likely the culprit and if you have the option of seeing the movie in 2D, I strongly recommend taking that opportunity.  Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Megan Fox’s acting also makes you want to look away from the screen.  The visual clarity does improve slightly as the movie goes on, but unfortunately Fox’s performance never does.

Visually, the Turtles are more grotesque and less cuddly than they were in the previous live-action adaptations.  They probably look more like they would if this kind of mutation actually happened in real life, though.  After all, if turtles and rats were mutated to human size in real life, I doubt they would look too cuddly.  Once you get used to the new appearance of the Turtles, however, you immediately start to like them.  That has a lot to do with the performances both of the actors playing the Turtles in motion capture and the actors who provide the voices of the characters.  They are very funny.  Michelangelo gets most of the funny lines, as he should, but each of the Turtles is given their chance to humor us.  There is also a good interplay between all of the characters.

The movie’s winning sense of humor helps to set the tone of the film.  With the more realistic and intense look of the Turtles in the marketing and the recent trend of making blockbuster franchises more serious, my fear going into this movie was that they would try to make it darker than it should be.  Thankfully, that is not the case as director Liebesman gets the tone just right.  The movie is light and fun, never taking itself too seriously.  Even while riding the elevator up to have their final confrontation with Shredder, the Turtles take a moment to provide us with a humorous musical interlude.

The playful tone is very important to the movie, because without it, the over-the-top action sequences would have come off much more ridiculous than they do.  The action is solid, with a chase scene down a snowy cliff-side being the highlight.

Along with the poor visuals and Megan Fox’s acting, this movie’s biggest flaw is the fact that the evil plot being carried out by the villains is just plain ridiculous.  It is also very rushed.  Maybe they should take a moment to make sure that the antidote they are still in the process of creating will actually work before they release a toxin over the city that will kill everyone… including themselves if the antidote should not work.  Fortunately, what helps make up for the stupidity of that plan is that it is being carried out by an awesome-looking Shredder.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has more than its fair share of flaws, but it is far from a horrible movie.  If you can look past the negatives, you will likely find the movie to be moderately entertaining.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, and the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again?

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