Sunday, August 10, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"  * (out of ****)

When you are a child, it seems, you are capable of accepting more. For example, children watch Mickey Mouse and I believe few question how it is possible that a mouse is able to speak. It simply is what it is. As a child you have a vivid imagination. All things seem possible.

I mention this because when I was a child I remember "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as a Saturday morning cartoon series (though it started as a comic book a few years prior). The original series aired between 1987-1996. In 1987 I was four years old. I had all the merchandise associated with the show; action figures, cars, t-shirts, blankets and video games. As a child I never really questioned how the turtles became human sized, learn to speak English and developed a taste for pizza. I am sure some explanation was given in the series, I don't remember what it was, but, whatever it was, as a child I didn't question it. If you were to ask me how it came to be I could have probably told you verbatim what the explanation was that was provided.

But, as an adult, watching this movie, it all seems odd. There really is no good explanation that can be provided to serve as a justification for how four turtles grew six feet tall, speak English, understand pop culture, eat pizza, know how to work computers and were taught to be ninjas by a rat, that has also grown to human size and speaks English.

Yes, this is a movie. And while watching a movie you have to accept certain things as what I call "movie logic". It may not make sense in the "real world" but within the world created by a movie, its logic is sound. I have been able to accept Vincent Price turning into a fly, dinosaurs coming out an extinction and killing humans, robots taking over Earth and apes being human. But, for some reason the image of a rat, acting like a samurai warrior, speaking English to six foot tall turtles just became too much for me. I couldn't accept it. And that, among other things, prevented me from enjoying this movie as I watched it with my nephew, who wasn't as familiar with the ninja turtles as I was.

I remember seeing the first two live action ninja turtle movies in the early 90s. The first one was simply titled "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) and the sequel was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" (1991). I can barely remember the plot to those movies but I do remember the tone of those films. They were much more playful. The superhero movies of my youth were much different than the ones being released today. I remember "The Flash" TV show (1990-91), "Batman Forever" (1995) and other movies as having a more "comedic", "playful" some would even say "campy" tone. Today, these movies take themselves so serious. They are dark and brooding. Fanboys read social and political messages in them. And they are violent. But that is an old criticism. I remember people saying the first live action Ninja Turtle movie was violent. It was one of the reasons Siskel & Ebert gave it a thumbs down.

When you are dealing with a movie about talking ninja turtles you have to have a sense of humor about it. A lot in this movie takes itself serious and wants to set-up exciting action sequences (thanks Michael Bay!) which are over the top!

Besides my youth, another reason why I feel this concept worked in the past and not now is because it was animated. Your suspension of belief is greater when you see an animated movie. In the past I have referred to animated movies as the stuff dreams are made of. When watching animation anything seems possible. I remember the old cartoon series dealing with  space and time travel and why not! Our heroes are four talking turtles. In the world created in an animated series this all seems possible. Even watching the 1990 live action movie is a bit strange because you have human actors speaking directly to turtles and rats. It worked in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) but for some reason "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" can't pull it off. And Roger Rabbit also had a lighter tone.

Megan Fox plays April O'Neil, a young journalism major who wants to cover serious news. Instead she does fluff pieces. There has been a recent crime wave in New York (go figure) by a group of people known as the foot clan. O'Neil thinks she may be on to a story as she discovers there is a vigilante group fighting back against the foot clan. What O'Neil finds out is the group fighting back is four over grown English speaking turtles. When she tries to run this story on the news, she is fired.

Though these aren't just any turtles. The back story informs us, O'Neil actually knew these turtles when she was a girl (I don't remember any of this being part of the original story). Her father, a scientist,  used the turtles and splinter, as part of a lab experiment in an attempt to create a mutagen used for healing powers.

One day there is a terrible fire in the lab and young O'Neil rescues her turtle friends, whom she has named Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael, by taking them out of the lab and placing them in a sewer with splinter. While in the sewer the turtles and splinter become mutants, growing in size and learn to speak English. The turtles love of pizza comes from O'Neil who would feed the turtles pizza crust.

The man in charge of the foot clan is Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). His ultimate plan is to release a deadly toxin in the air killing nearly everyone, bringing New York down.

But what am I talking about here? Does anyone care? Does the plot matter? Who is going to see this movie, which is doing very well this weekend. The screening I attended, on a Saturday morning, wasn't filled with children as I thought it would be. It was filled with people my age, thirty-somethings, who I guess wanted to see the movie for nostalgia sake.

So, the important stuff. How do the turtles look? I suppose good. They look more "realistic" than the turtles in the 1990 movie. Now, my question is, is that a good thing? Do you want to see realistic six foot turtles talking? This version is darker, Megan Fox is taking her role very serious. Shredder is a dark character, which tries to give the movie a realistic tone as well. The fight scenes go on too long. About 15 minutes of this movie could have been cut. The film is one hour and 45 minutes. It was difficult for me to remember which turtle is which. I guess when you've seen one turtle you've seen 'em all. And, I'm sorry, I just couldn't buy into the premise. I'm not a child any more. All I saw on that movie screen was a giant, overblown, over budgeted, silly story.