Michael Bay gets his hands on another beloved property from our childhoods, but as producer of a new live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature his signature influence is somewhat muted. Director Jonathan Liebesman instead delivers a superhero adventure pitched squarely at the kids, with Megan Fox and William Fichtner providing human support alongside a quartet of mo-capped anthropomorphic reptiles, and the results are goofy, juvenile, shambolic, but admittedly quite entertaining.
This year's blockbuster season has proved one of the most formidable and competitive in recent years, with a string of grand scale, franchise-driven juggernauts taking the box office by storm. For a troubled property like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has never found a truly comfortable home in any medium, it's been a sorry-looking summer.
Any superhero movie is going to balk at the prospect of opening so close to two new Marvel Studios properties - Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy - especially when many have touted them as some of the best entries in the MCU to-date. With a plot centring on genetically-mutated animals, it's going to be tough going not to draw comparison to both Gareth Edwards' Godzilla and Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. To top it all off, TMNT has to contend with being "the other Michael Bay movie" of the year, following hot on the heels of billion-dollar behemoth Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Not that any of that should matter, but it does. Audiences and critics get burnt out, the market gets saturated, and when a film dares not to compete with the biggest and best of its competitors that can easily be misinterpreted as incompetence. Along the way, it seemed every step the project took was met with criticism, skepticism or vitriolic ire: Michael Bay producing, substantial rewrites late into pre-production, Megan Fox cast as the female lead, the new turtle design giving them nostrils. Even Liebesman's filmography offered little to get get excited about. It's fair to say, people were primed and ready to outright hate this film (even I had it pegged as the summer's most-likely turkey).
Growing up in the late-80s, early-90s it was impossible to avoid the Turtles. Even in England, where they were cautiously re-named Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and Michelangelo's nunchakus were airbrushed away, they were everywhere. That said, despite the heroes in half-shells appearing on everything from pencil cases to duvet covers, I somehow managed to avoid ever reading one of the comics or seeing any of their film or television offerings. Perhaps I was a fraction older than the age range they were being pitched to, or I simply had enough on my plate, somehow they never got to me and as I got older, I felt no compulsion to get caught up. Suffice to say, I approached this new film with a vague overview of the characters, their origins, cohorts and enemies, but with no emotional investment in the property whatsoever. Perhaps for that reason, I found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be pretty entertaining.
Megan Fox stars as April O'Neill (originally a lab assistant but long ago repurposed in the franchise as an intrepid, spunky NYC reporter), who tires of her fluff news stories and hankers for a break in the ongoing Foot Clan case - an organised crime syndicate terrorising the city. On witnessing a masked vigilante stop a Foot robbery at the dockyards, O'Neill takes her scoop to editor Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg), only to be laughed out of her office. Going it alone, O'Neill soon finds herself face to face with Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, a foursome of adolescent mutated turtles proficient in martial arts and pop culture, but hidden away in the city's sewers by their over-protective rat mentor/father, Splinter.
From there the plot follows a number of paths: O'Neill looking to break her story and get her job back, the turtles coming of age, learning to trust and respect each other (as well as humans), and everyone working together to stop the evil plans of wealthy industrialist Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) and the Foot Clan - led by evil Japanese samurai warrior Shredder. It's all very cliched, by-the-numbers and oftentimes absurd, but the film knows better than to waste its energies selling Sachs' plans to get "stupid rich" by gassing Manhattan and instead hones in on the humorous interplay between its heroes.
The comedy is broad, absolutely, but some of it is genuinely funny. The four turtles each have their defining character traits, which complement each other's but also see Leonardo and Raphael clash for authority within the group. April is welcomed into their lair, and repeatedly hit on by the slow-witted and ever-so-slightly creepy Michelangelo. In fact, April is hit on by pretty much everyone in the film, not least her cocksure co-worker Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett). His banter may not be razor sharp, but their scenes together do raise consistent laughs throughout. April also has a backstory that links her father to Sachs and the turtles themselves, but as that may not be canon, I'll avoid going into detail.
FX work in the film varies substantially throughout. The performance capture turtles never look real but are brought to life by athletic performances and strong voice work. Splinter, on the other hand, looks more like a deformed horse than a rat and is a jarring visual presence whenever on screen. The action sequences for the most part are energetic and coherent, especially a fantastically orchestrated crash down a snowy mountain-side in which the turtles must contend with the semi-truck and trailer they have commandeered as well as a number of pursuit vehicles, while careening uncontrollably downhill at high speed. It's an incredibly CG-heavy sequence, but thanks to Bourne series second unit director Dan Bradley, is staged rather wonderfully.
As one would expect from this type of lower-tier, child-friendly larger-than-life adventure film, performances generally lack nuance or subtlety. Fichtner and Arnett are essentially playing themselves, effortlessly intimidating and charming-on-the-verge-of-sleazy respectively, and as such are fine. Goldberg isn't on screen long enough to make too much of an impression, while the voice work - from the likes of Tony Shaloub and Johnny Knoxville among others - is largely anonymous. There's also a brief but hilarious turn from Abby Elliott as April's roommate. All eyes, however, will be on Megan Fox, taking on only her second lead role (after Jennifer's Body) and back in Michael Bay's good graces after famously getting fired off Transformers 3 for claiming he was "worse than Hitler". Here Fox actually does pretty decent work. April is capable, sympathetic and driven by a desire to do the right thing and succeed in a challenging environment, never falling back on her good looks to get ahead, despite almost every male character treating her like a sex object. Fox rises above it, and all credit to her for doing so.
While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is unlikely to challenge Michael Bay's other summer offering at the top of this year's box office chart, and can't compete in terms of vision and prowess with most of the season's other superhero vehicles, that is no reason to write the film off entirely. Sure, it's silly, scrappy and childish, but it's also pretty funny and plenty of fun. It understands its characters and its audience and delivers precisely that, no more, no less. No half-measures, just half shells.