Before you buy that tiny box turtle in Chinatown, know that it can live for 100 years. Which means that among all the Mad Libs nonsense of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — a comic book-turned-media-phenomenon that’s always half-admitted it’s a goof — at least the teenage part is accurate. The bulletproof shells, bipedalism, and mozzarella tolerance aren’t, but that was always the charm. “Why so serious?” the reptiles seemed to whisper, before about-facing to yelp, “Cowabunga!”
Alas, 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles strains for gravitas. Director Jonathan Liebesman wants to compete with the big boys, the glossy, fate-of-the-free-world-depends-on-us blockbuster heroics that have come to feel as generic as a row of toasters. He and his flock of screenwriters miss the point. In the ’80s, the Turtles were a spoof. Today, they could be a welcome relief from all the dour bat-dudes and super-hunks who probably wouldn’t have bothered with saving the planet if they could find a good therapist. Culturally, the turtles are supposed to be misfits — they’ve even got “mutant” in the name.
At the risk of overly romanticizing the original film — a movie I saw 20 times when I was 11 and haven’t dared watch since — 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had grime and a sliver of soul. Its New York was wet and dirty, the streets lined with manholes shooting up geysers of gross steam, and bad guys who committed crimes kids understood: stealing purses, attacking innocents, and ominous loitering. In fact, the bad guys were kids themselves drawn to the Foot Clans Pleasure Island-like hideout to smoke, shoot pool, and play poker — a child’s fantasy of thug life — and the scariest thing was that we could imagine ourselves stumbling after them into the world of crime.
This TMNT is bigger and emptier, a wasteland of pixels. Instead of the visceral chills of alleyway crooks, the evil master scheme is, er, pharmaceutical fraud — terrifying to anyone with an HMO, none of whom will buy a ticket to the movie. It opens with high-def shots of nunchucks, sai, a bo, and a katana smashing apples and watermelon (as if Gallagher had a cameo) and quickly gets less interesting. It doesn’t help that producer Michael Bay has shoehorned in his sexual tics: Victoria’s Secret billboards, Megan Fox, and rampant product placement, including a soliloquy from Splinter on the glory of Pizza Hut’s mythical 99-cheese pizza. Bay and company have even amped up lead villain Shredder, a karate expert who wears a pagoda made of knives, into, well, a Transformer. It begs the question: Why introduce Shredder sans suit as a brawler who can literally knock a man unconscious while on his knees with his hands tied behind his back, and then make him rely on magnets and gizmos?
And if you thought Bay had forgiven Fox for saying he was “like Hitler,” this new April O’Neil role is proof he hasn’t. It’s a setup. Audiences will ridicule her for stinking it up as an unconvincing journalist, but the script doesn’t give her a chance. Despite O’Neil piecing together Shredder’s scheme, the film insists she’s only there as a piece of ass. She is acknowledged zero times for her smarts and dozens of times for her looks, whether she’s derailing a car chase by accidentally distracting the driver (Will Arnett) with her butt, or enduring Michelangelo’s lusty pant that she’s “so hot I can feel my shell tightening.”
As for the turtles, they’ve now been given super strength and, in Raphael’s case, a pandering doo-rag. In their sewer lair, they laugh at YouTube videos of Keyboard Cat without the self-awareness that they aren’t much different. Jokes their creator (William Fichtner), “And we were going to use rabbits.” Honestly, in a film this generic, a species swap wouldn’t make a difference.