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Entries in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles [2014] (1)

Monday
Aug112014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Pizza, Love, and Understanding

First things first: Michael Bay neither wrote nor directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Since the project was announced, man-children everywhere have decried the filmmaker's ongoing crusade to collect and destroy all their beloved childhood franchises. But Bay merely serves as executive producer here. Any gripes with characterization and narrative incoherence must be laid squarely at the feet of director Jonathan Liebesman and writers Josh Applebaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty. By extension, this warped fan logic suggests we blame Steven Spielberg for how the Transformers series turned out.

Having said all that, I don't think the new Ninja Turtles is a disaster. I'll go so far as to call it a good movie--within certain parameters. Is it a grim-'n-gritty, art-house/action homage to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's groundbreaking 80s indie comic? Hell, no. It's a competent kids' movie, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The film stars Megan Fox as April O'Neil, a young New York reporter struggling to leap from puff pieces to investigative journalism. She gets her chance when a ruthless criminal outfit called The Foot Clan gets into a skirmish with the titular Turtles one night at the docks. Of course, her colleagues don't believe in hulking, six-foot-tall creatures with mad ninja skills (not even the dorky cameraman-with-a-crush, played by Will Arnett).

April continues snooping and gets caught up in a literal underground world of mutant martial artists. Raised and trained by an old, talking rat named Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) the turtles were actually the subject of an experiment by April's dead father and his partner in bio research, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner). For years, Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) have waited for their chance to become full-fledged heroes, and the emergence of the Foot has presented them a worthy foe.

Unless you're five years old, there won't be any prizes for guessing that Sachs (now head of the city's leading security systems firm) is deeply involved with the bad guys. It's also no shocker that the Turtles must save New York from a giant spire that's armed with a deadly airborne toxin. This is, after all, a comic-book franchise origin film, and Ninja Turtles follows X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man's template to a "T".

So, how can I recommend this movie when I spend so much time railing against unoriginal blockbusters? The answer boils down to intent. Who is Ninja Turtles aimed at? Had Liebesman and company delivered an ultra-violent black-and-white bruise-fest in the vein of Sin City, I would assume it's the aforementioned angry 'net nerds--who would be justifiably pissed with these results. But from the opening animated sequence and voice over, it's clear that Paramount is after children here. This is the kind of light-weight action fantasy meant to get eight-year-olds excited and occasionally weepy, and make thirteen-year-olds say "Whoa" when Sachs reveals his master plan (it's a lovely and sinister twist that trumps the "Make Everyone Monsters!" motivation commonplace in this tier of the genre).

Adults enjoying this movie is a pleasant side effect. I grew up watching the Ninja Turtles cartoon and reading various incarnations of the characters in comics. Sure, it would be cool to see the weirder elements of this universe explored on film, such as Krang, the talking brain from Dimension X, or the robot-mouse-making evil scientist Baxter Stockman. But this is a foundation picture. The original and even secondary audience for the Turtles is two generations removed from the kids this version is aimed at--meaning a fresh introduction makes sense. Much in the same way Batman Begins was a comparatively bland picture to The Dark Knight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a serviceable first chapter in what could prove to be a wild adventure series.

And please don't take "serviceable" to mean paint-by-numbers. While there's a lot to be improved upon here (some flat jokes, a more original climax, and Fox's engaged-but-not-good-enough performance), Liebesman and his effects team pull off some really terrific set pieces--which I dare say even the most ardent cynic would be hard-pressed to pout through (assuming, of course, they'd ever deign to watch a "Michael Bay" movie). From the Turtles' rocket-skateboard-powered fight antics to a twisty surfing scene through New York's sewer system and a cliff-hanging upstate truck chase, the movie's formulaic stretches are punctuated by a zippy spirit of fun executed by people who at least pretend they're breaking new ground.

I don't know that I'll ever watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again, but I can say the same thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, too, which opened last week. Both suffer from a lack of originality; both feature state-of-the-art special effects; and both are about oddball "found families" fighting to protect the innocent. Both films also target different demographics. Yet people root for Guardians to triumph over Turtles, box-office-wise--as if that sends some kind of a message to Michael Bay. Do they not realize they're betting on a cockfight between a rooster and a McNugget? Adults take kids to Guardians of the Galaxy; kids take adults to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Michael Bay takes his money to a bank--located, I'd imagine, not far from the set where he didn't direct Ninja Turtles.