Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Brothers become legends.

It’s only fitting that on the 30th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saga — a franchise that centers on cold-blooded, wise cracking, pizza munching, crime-fighting, mutant ninja reptiles — characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, their biggest, boldest and most audacious feature to date is unleashed onto the world. After rumors circulated the Internet months prior to the film’s release, claiming that the Turtles in this feat would be presented as having an extraterrestrial origin, unlike the Turtles seen in the popular 1987 television series, enraging Turtle fanboys around the globe, with other such laughable reports being spread online, some of which included chitchat on the computer-generated Turtle designs, in particular, the Turtle’s nostrils and lips appearing to be too unnaturally ‘realistic’ or ‘accurate,’ this Michael Bay Produced feature — that is correct, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes produces the pic, Bay himself does not direct it — is, without a doubt, the best live-action Turtles film assembled thus far, with a similar gritty tone, energy and aesthetic to the passable 1990 big-screen Turtle debut flick, titled, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

... like shadows in the night ... completely unseen ...
… like shadows in the night … completely unseen …

Clearly surpassing other filmmakers attempts at bringing these reptilian crime fighters to life on the big screen, this new Turtles picture is a particularly considerable improvement over the follow-up debacles that trailed the 1990 movie; the overly tacky, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), which featured a cringe-worthy nightclub sequence where rapper, Vanilla Ice, belts out an ear-aching tune, with horrendous lyrics, ‘Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go!’ while the Turtles battle the notorious — yet in this flick, childish — Foot Clan, then perform a fully synchronized dance routine, and let’s not forget the not-so-great, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1994), where the Turtles, whose abysmal, cheap-looking, cartoony designs resemble mutated versions of Kermit the Frog, rather than actual turtles, find themselves transported back in time, to an ancient Japan.

This new Turtles film opens up with a stylish cartoon-like prelude, immediately setting up the dim, yet playful, tone for the rest of picture; here patrons learn that darkness has indeed fallen over the City of New York, as Shredder and his evil Foot Clan — a pro-American terrorist organization of fully armed men who wear black military-like uniforms and kabuki style masks to conceal their identities — relentlessly terrorize the city and its citizens, casting an iron grip on everything from law enforcement to the politicians. The future of New York and its inhabitants certainly appears to be bleak, though, that is until four unlikely outcast brothers rise from the depths of the murky sewers and discover their true destiny as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This ensemble of heroes-in-a-half-shell must work together with the fearless Channel 6 reporter, April O’Neil (Megan Fox) — who discovers these ‘vigilante’ Turtles battling the Foot at the city docks late one night, then shortly follows the masked heroes to a subway heist, in order to prove their existence to her skeptical Channel 6 boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg) — and her trusty cameraman, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), to save the city and its people, unraveling the mysteriously shrouded Shredder’s diabolical plan.

As far as narrative goes, this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick is stripped down to its most basic elements, and in the end, results in the film’s final showdown being the Turtles versus Shredder, ultimately fighting over a vat of glowing green mutagen. Growing up and watching the 1987 animated television series religiously, I had high hopes that this film would do the Turtles justice, bringing them to life the way I had envisioned as a child, and thankfully this feature certainly succeeds in delivering exactly that. Sure the plot is simple, but it works wonders in establishing the characters, their brotherly bond with one another, and opens up the vastly elaborate word fashioned by creators Eastman and Laird.

April O'Neil ... totally shell shocked!
April O’Neil … totally shell shocked!

From the outset, it’s evident that for this new film, the cool looking, costume-wearing animatronic Turtles — designed at legendary puppeteer Jim Henson’s workshop — have all been replaced with modern computer-generated Turtles, but thankfully, these new digital designs are far superior to the puppets seen in the 90’s flicks, as the revamped Turtles come out looking more life-like from their ‘outer shell,’ to their movement and aesthetic. Yes, some might think that these revamped Turtles appear to be rather ugly, but guess what? They are ‘mutant’ Turtles, not ‘giant’ Turtles, and anyone who has ever seen another film about mutants, Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes (2006) for example, will know that mutants are not supposed to be pretty! What’s more, all four Turtles come across looking, visually, distinctively recognizable — and not simply differentiated through the color of their mask or headpiece — as each of the Turtle’s makeup really highlights the character’s unique eccentricities and personality, with amour, physique and even jokey ‘bling,’ emphasizing the character’s individual personas; just gaze upon the muscle-bound body of Raphael, he is clearly the bigger, more masculine, Turtle of the foursome — interestingly, Raphael has the words, ‘Mikey was here,’ scribbled on his shell, in Japanese, so that Raph can’t understand the text.

As far as Turtle performances and assumed roles goes — though primarily influenced by the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) designs — all four Ninja Turtles genuinely come across feeling like the same Turtles from the 1987 television series: the blue-masked Turtle, Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), is the leader and commander of the team, and wields two razor-sharp katanas; the orange-masked, Michelangelo (voiced and motion-captured by Noel Fisher), is the most relaxed member of the unit, coming across as a bit of a ‘cool punk’ — perceived by his mutant brothers as a fun, easy-going, entertaining, party dude — and can be seen whirling a pair of nunchakus while in battle; the purple-masked turtle, named Donatello (voiced and mo-capped by Jeremy Howard), is the I.T. specialist/ thinker, or ‘nerdy’ technological genius, of the group — complete with a pair of magnifying-glass looking goggles — whose weapon of choice is a long and tall Bō staff; and finally, rounding up the foursome is the brooding, aggressive, brutish, and rebellious, Raphael (voiced and motion-captured by Alan Ritchson), the red-masked turtle, whose preferred weapons are two sai — while a crucial member of the cluster, the often maddened, Raph constantly threatens his brothers of leaving the Turtle outfit and flying solo. Then we have the strict and wizened sensei, and ‘father’ of the Turtles, the mutant rat, Master Splinter, or simply known as Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub, having previously worked with producer Bay on Pain and Gain in 2014), who raises the Turtles as his own children, teaching them everything they know. All who voice and/ or portray these characters does a commendable job in bringing out their idiosyncratic personalities.

Shred it!
Shred it!

With Megan Fox, Transformers (2007) and Will Arnett, The LEGO Movie (2014), citing their own children as major factors in their decision to star in the blockbuster picture, the pair delivers equally sound performances, portraying their respective roles with enthusiasm and delight. Megan Fox plays the independent, career driven, April O’Neil — complete with a yellow jacket, clearly paying homage to the yellow jumpsuit wore by April O’Neil in the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon series — with earnest sincerity; this could possibly be Fox’s finest performance to date. Unlike the Vern in the television series, screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec — who both penned the 2011, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — and Evan Daugherty, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), have made the decision to craft this incarnation of Vernon as a more likable character, who is supportive of O’Neil, as opposed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) television version, where he is mean spirited and often an antagonist towards April. Seeing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was Will Arnett’s first time working on a picture of this stature and magnitude, he’s obviously enjoying the ride, and his playful mischievousness clearly rubs off on screen, as Vernon comes across as being modestly wide-eyed, like a child living out his fantasy. William Fichtner, The Dark Knight (2008), does a decent job in his expose of Eric Sacks, a wealthy businessman and scientist — who, coincidentally, in the past, worked alongside April’s father, a scientist by the name of Dr. O’Neil — but brings nothing overly memorable to the table.

The head of the Foot Clan, an ominous figure simply known as, the Shredder, clad in a metallic full-body samurai outfit — complete with a demonic looking faceplate — wielding enough blades and knives to keep a restaurant kitchen afoot, is a chief standout element of the film. The Shredder armor design is unbelievably unique — I’ve never seen anything else quite like it before on film — adding a distinctive oriental flavor to the character, yet still remains true to the 1987 television series incarnation of the villain; though it’s baffling how this guy fights in amour which appears awfully complicated to use, not to mention nonsensically heavy. It was gleefully nostalgic hearing the armored antagonist, Shredder, utter the famous line, ‘Tonight, I dine on Turtle soup’ — albeit subtitled.

Hey dude, this is NO cartoon!
Hey dude, this is NO cartoon!

South African filmmaker Jonathan Liebesman — who is clearly no stranger to working with producer Bay, having previously directed the Platinum Dunes financed, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) — does a wonderful job in keeping the film’s enduring, steadfast pace, with an awesome balance of heart-pounding action and nonchalant humor, never over-complicating the narrative or losing focus on the plot, central players and their motives, relationships and affinity. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also delivers some crazy-impressive action set pieces with a clear winner being an off-road car chase, which takes place on the snow covered mountains surrounding the Sacks estate; this sequence is incredibly tense, and visually stunning, lending itself to truly stand-out as one of the best action scenes of 2014. Topping it all off, there’s a catchy theme song playing as the credits roll, aptly titled, ‘Shell Shocked,’ performed by Juicy J, Moxie, Ty Dolla$ign, and Wiz Khalifa.

Aside from a few minor, slightly questionable, plot details, which play out all too conveniently — an origin story supposedly based around a Ninja Turtle comic-book series — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an enjoyable and enthralling, popcorn joyride that works as a great introductory picture, to what will hopefully mature into a successful, and fruitful, motion picture franchise. This new Turtles feat sticks closely to its reputable source material, while remaining fresh and inventive, with a sterling cast, gratifying storyline and some stupendous effects, making it a deserving entry in the Ninja Turtle saga. Be sure to look out for number Easter eggs scattered throughout the picture, one being the song ‘Happy Together,’ which Michelangelo sings to April at the conclusion of the film, being a 1967 song performed by a group named, The Turtles, and several scenes, where hints from the 1987 animated Ninja Turtles theme can be heard; two instances being, the noise that blasts out from the Turtle’s van horn, and the sound that can be heard when Donatello hacks April’s laptop.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is released through Paramount Pictures Australia