Children of the 1990’s: breathe a sigh of relief. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one childhood favorite that Michael Bay has not wrecked for you.
In fact, the new Turtles film, produced by Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company and directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans), retains the humor-fueled spirit of the original movies and cartoons while also adopting a darker look and tone inspired by the original comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. In short, it’s the characters you grew up loving, given the film treatment that die-hard fans of the source material always clamored for years ago.
The origin story of the turtles has changed a little bit since the last feature film outing. Aspiring TV reporter April O’Neill (Megan Fox), desperate to break a major news story in order to move her career into covering serious news and away from entertainment and fluff pieces, spends her days and nights chasing down leads regarding the criminal activities of the Foot Clan, a well-armed and equipped syndicate orchestrating a seemingly unstoppable crime wave in New York City. While spying on a dockside raid by Foot Clan troops, she witnesses what believes to be a vigilante fighting back with incredible stealth, speed, and strength. She’s unable to get definitive proof of the vigilante’s existence, which of course gets her laughed out of the newsroom by the “real” news producers, including her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg).
Not to be deterred, April throws herself square into the middle of the Foot Clan’s next assault, which brings her face to face with her “vigilante” once “he” shows up to save the day. The “he” is, as one might expect, in fact a “they”: the four adolescent, mutated, heroes in a half-shell with the ninjitsu skills and Renaissance master names, katana swordmaster Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), nerdy tech and bo staff master Donatello (Jeremy Howard), surly twin sai blade wielder Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and lighthearted nunchaku fighter Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher). Their story of growing up in New York’s sewers under the care and tutelage of their wise and warmhearted rodent sensei Master Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), as well as the origins of their mutation and their profound addiction to pizza, is eventually revealed to have ties to April’s own childhood, as well as a decades-old plot by the Foot Clan themselves to establish and entrench their power over the entire city. It then falls to the April, the turtles, and April’s devoted cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) to venture out from the sewers and stop the merciless Foot Clan Master Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his followers from executing their plan and killing thousands of unsuspecting New Yorkers.
In this era of seemingly endless feature film reboots of well-known TV and movie brands, this is the kind that is actually welcome. The last time Leo, Donny, Raph, and Mikey were on the big screen was 2007 for an entirely computer-animated adventure, and prior to that it had been 14 years since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. This brand was ready to be re-visioned and recreated using today’s motion capture movie technology that’s made so many other comic book and television properties viable as big screen movies, and Liebesman, working from a script credited to Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol) and Evan Daugherty (Divergent), handles things the right way. He keeps the martial arts action fast and furious, stages some very impressive and elaborate action set pieces to show off just how much the turtles can do, and in the breaks when blades aren’t clashing and bullets aren’t flying he allows the personalities of the turtles that fans will surely remember to take over and fill the proceedings with charm and laughs. Their banter and occasional brotherly bickering, along with a ton of other clever nods to the source material written into the script, are entertaining enough to keep things fun and reminiscent of the old cartoon days. Yes, the turtles themselves aren’t as physically cute as they once were — the effects provided by Industrial Light & Magic provide for much larger and more reptilian-looking turtles — but if you were a fan years ago, it’s likely to feel like you’re spending time with old friends after a long time away while watching the film, despite appearances.
As for the human participants here, they don’t detract from the proceedings at all, though they don’t add much, either. That’s actually a credit to Megan Fox, who in the past has been a liability to the sci-fi and fantasy genre films she’s been a part of, but it’s an odd thing to say about Will Arnett, whose never really allowed to play to his strengths, which all lie in being much more of a doofus than he is here. If anything, perhaps that a good thing, as Arnett competing for comic relief moments with the turtles and Michaelangelo specifically would have been a terrible mistake. It’s not April and Vernon that audiences are there to see and enjoy, after all, but the return of “turtle power” in all its big-screen glory.
This is a pretty good start in that direction.
Score: 3 out of 5
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Starring Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Abby Elliott, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Minae Noji. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman.
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
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