Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bogus, Dude: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

A review of Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is essentially useless. If you’re a TMNT fan (whatever that means these days) then you already know what to expect, and chances are you’ve already bought your ticket. If instead, you feel an intense pulse of intracranial pressure at the mention of this incredibly dated brand, then likewise you already know that this isn’t the film for you. So instead I’ll do my utmost not to waste any more of your time than necessary by comparing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), to see if two decades is enough make a difference in quality in the origin story of these… well, the titles say it all.

The plots of both films are perfunctory. Four normal turtles are transformed by radioactive ooze into a team of fighting, pizza-loving brothers (named for Renaissance artists), and taught the art of ninjutsu by their rat sensei Splinter. Shredder, an evil dojo master, wants the Foot Clan to rule New York City. The Turtles must stop them because… they must. And there’s a sassy reporter named April O’Neil who wants to get the scoop. That’s it. TMNT (1990) and TMNT (2014) handle these blisteringly engaging plot points in different ways, and there are pros and cons to both approaches. The material isn’t incredibly robust, but that just means there’s less to screw up. Or it would, but in the latter case, following the grand tradition of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, audiences are instead treated to new and exciting ways that already-trite material can be made unbearable.

Our heroes, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
TMNT (1990) understands, on a fundamental level, that this is not a film to be taken seriously. There is only a small slice of the film continuum in which you can get away with rubber Jim Henson turtle suits, and director Steve Barron takes full advantage. We’re thrust straight into the cartoonish, comedic lives of our four green-skinned leads with little explanation (which comes later, in the form of too-little-too-late expository dialogue), but this is okay – really, everything you need to know is already there in the title. The important part is that we establish who these characters are, and that the majority of the film’s screen-time is given over to their inter-team antics. We learn that Raphael, ostensibly the film’s protagonist, embodies the rebelliousness of teenage life – he disobeys Splinter and ventures out of the sewer onto the grimy, pre-Giuliani streets, his poorly-disguised shell bulging out from under a trench coat. We learn that Leonardo, despite feeling the weight of responsibility as the de facto leader, would rather crack wise with his brothers than be a serious soldier. This is perhaps the only area in which the film excels: the depiction of the Turtles themselves, who are characterized, likeable, and who spend most of the film being goofballs. This is only element a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film needs in order to succeed – at least in terms of connecting with the audience.

TMNT (2014), by contrast, is a textbook example of flanderization: a media phenomenon that describes how a single minor character trait can be exaggerated over time until it completely consumes the character (named for friendly neighbourino Ned Flanders, who began his animated life as simply a competent, pious foil to the idiotic, blasphemous Homer Simpson, and who was eventually “Flanderized” to the point where he is now portrayed as a religious fanatic). In 1990, the Turtles all looked the same, and could only be differentiated by their coloured eye masks. Now, because Raphael is the "tough guy", he’s twice the size of the others, and massively muscular. He’s “cool but rude”, as you recall, so of course he wears Oakleys and chews on a toothpick. Donatello, who was known as the turtle who “does machines”, is now hidden under a hundred pounds of extraneous tech equipment and absurdly huge coke-bottle glasses (which are taped at the bridge, just in case you’re still somehow not understanding that he’s supposed to be a nerd). The Turtles have never been profoundly-drawn characters, but as an audience we need more to work with than this. In 2014 there’s no one you could point to as a functioning protagonist, and we’re denied any scenes showing the Turtles actually interacting with one another, hanging out in their sewer hideout, or doing anything that would serve to flesh out their one-dimensional depictions. Instead, the buildup of character and the setup of individual storylines that would normally warrant at least a scene or two on their own are shoved into other scenes – usually action sequences – and paid cheap lip service as part of the throwaway dialogue (for example, Raphael makes an offhand threat somewhere near the beginning of the film that he intends to run away and desert the group, and during the climax he repents that all those times he threatened to leave and all those times he pushed his brothers hard were because he loved them, and the audience is left gaping at this amazingly melodramatic payoff to a character arc that was never properly established).

In 1990, computer generated imagery was not yet at the point that it could render four lead characters convincingly, and so the Turtles film we got relied on rubber prosthetics, humour, and a coherent (if disposable) sense of character. You don’t need me to tell you that in 2014, we get the opposite: a barrage of incomprehensible CGI action with nothing supporting it but a brainless plot, inane dialogue, and a performance from Megan Fox that’s so wooden you could literally take any closeup of her face from any point in the movie and not be able to tell what emotion she’s supposed to be expressing at that second. Judith Hoag as 1990’s April O’Neil was no scene-stealer, but her winning laugh and expressive face make her multitudes more attractive than the stiff, plasticky Fox. (Their reactions to seeing the Turtles for the first time are instructive: Hoag’s O’Neil screams and screams, babbles incoherently, and tries to convince herself she’s not crazy; Fox’s O’Neil gapes prettily before fainting.) It doesn’t help that far more screen-time is given in 2014 to O’Neil than the Turtles themselves.

Megan Fox and Will Arnett in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

You also probably don’t need me to remind you (but of course, I will anyway) that a Michael Bay production will be full to the brim with flagrant product placement, or contain pandering touches designed to assuage the drooling fanboy audience (the worst offender here being April’s dismissal that the Turtles are aliens, which she calls “stupid” – a barefaced reference to the internet community’s outrage at the initial drafts of the script which attempted to retcon the Turtles’ origin story. Yes, Michael, that was indeed a stupid idea. Admitting it won’t save your movie). And make no mistake, this is every bit a Michael Bay movie. His shadow looms incredibly large over the final product. You’d think the passing of the directorial torch would allow for a fresh approach, but his acolyte Liebesman (whose resume includes such pernicious fare as Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans) seems afraid to mess with his recipe for “success”, resulting in a flavourless, smudged imitation of Bay’s singularly bombastic style.

And – spoiler warning – don’t look forward to a satisfying resolution to any of those gripping story points. Shredder just kind of falls off a building. April O’Neil doesn’t ever write the story she spends the first third of the film talking about, because she wants to protect the identity of her new friends. She pretty much just stops being a reporter altogether halfway through the movie. Both Will Arnett’s bumbling cameraman character and the brazenly horny Michaelangelo (his single defining trait in this bold new vision) are denied her affections. Nobody gets what they want in the end. Without characters or a functional story, can TMNT (2014) even be called a film? This is the most content-free movie I’ve seen since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I loved the Turtles cartoon as a child, and I treasured my Donatello action figure, but I have no real emotional stake in this film. The reason it bothers me isn’t because I feel maligned: it’s because no intellectual property, no matter how silly, deserves to be handled in such a careless, cynical way.

On TMNT (1990), Roger Ebert wrote that “this movie is nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and probably is the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. It supplies, in other words, more or less what Turtle fans will expect.” I have to agree: it’s a competent film, and though its ridiculous premise might be a barrier to more general audiences, it’s a movie with awkward charm and genuine heart. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of TMNT (2014), except maybe the part about it satisfying series fans – but what it means to be a “Turtle fan” is incredibly indistinct. Are the bawling children whose parents are forced to sit through this awful film and fork over cash for tie-in products really “fans”? Or can the title be more accurately applied to the adults who once were those children, and who now complain about canonical inconsistencies in a decades-old toy brand? I don’t think there’s any helping either group – this movie makes them all look like idiots.

Welcome to the future, my amphibious friends. I wish you hadn’t lived long enough to see it.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.


  1. TMNT is so great, thanks for the article.

  2. I agree on all points. Just decided to turn it on as background noise on a lazy Sunday and it could have been so much better, even for the silly premise it has always been. But it missed the mark of being fun and fell victim to modern tools. Pumped full of CGI and Bay action just made it loud ....heart pounding to some, but ultimately empty. I appreciate the "Bay" treatment on shows like Black Sails...a show with great writing that is just enhanced by all the production. I was three when the first TMNT movie hit screens. I have fond memories of it. I should have left it at that.