A lot of people have been really worried about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie “because Michael Bay.” Bay is a producer on the movie along with his company Platinum Dunes. It’s not a Michael Bay movie, that much needs to be established right away. Why? Because, while his fingerprints are all over Jonathan Liebesman’s film, from frenetic action you can barely follow to shots leering at parts of Megan Fox’s anatomy, the new Ninja Turtles movies actually DOES feel like it’s for kids, more or less. Not people around 30 years old who grew up with the first cartoon (which is actually terrible, by the way; I watched a couple of episodes recently and they do not hold up at all), but for kids today. The whole feel of it is that of a big, actiony movie for the under-twelves. That doesn’t make it any good, by the way; it just means, it’s just not for grown ups, so stop worrying.
The makers of the film are relying on the fact that we basically know what and who the Ninja Turtles are, and even their basic personalities, because almost no time is spent on character development. The film is only 101 minutes long and with a plot this convoluted and the need for obligatory huge action sequences, it’s hard to spend much more than a passing moment or two trying to give the turtles much more than what the original theme song told us: Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude, and Michelangelo is a party dude. Them’s your characters. But we don’t see them for a bit.
The movie begins with Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) giving us narration about how his sons are “destined” to save the city of New York. Fine, whatever. We then cut to April O’Neil (Fox), a correspondent for Channel 6 news who, because of her youth and looks, is generally relegated to puff pieces and human interest malarkey. She longs to be a real reporter, though, and is going out looking for evidence at yet another robbery undertaken by “The Foot Clan,” a group of mercenaries so secretive that everyone knows their name already. Nobody takes her seriously, not even her cameraman and apparent only friend Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), who thinks she ought to just be content where she is. It’s impossible to tell if he’s actually sleazy or just tries to act cool and comes across as sleazy. The character is a mystery.
Eventually, April finds evidence (that no one believes) of vigilantes stopping the Foot. After becoming a hostage of the Foot, she follows her rescuers to a rooftop where she sees that they are, in fact, Ninja Mutant Turtle Teenagers. She is suddenly reminded of growing up, when her now-deceased father worked in a lab run by Eric Sachs (William Fichtner) and they were doing tests on four box turtles and a rat. They were all named what their names are so she remembers everything. She goes to Sachs to tell him their experiments were a success after all, but (surprise) he isn’t who he seems to be and is in league with the leader of the Foot Clan, the mysterious Shredder (played by CGI and shadows). Now it’s up to April, Vern, and the Turtles to stop the bad guys from (get ready) destroying the whole city.
That’s a very, very simplified version of the plot. There’s seriously so much going on with the storyline that it’s a wonder any dialogue had enough space to be spoken. While most of Bay’s output is becoming longer and longer, this movie (which, again, he didn’t direct) is barely over 90 minutes. On the one hand, that’s great because it’s not very good and I was able to go home with the sun still up, but on the other hand, it’s not enough time to tell a decent story properly given how many moving parts they have to work with. There are more plot conveniences here than in any five action movies, not least of which being a massive “Inject Adrenaline” button April has to push when the Turtles are being drained of mutagen-enriched blood.
Corny jokes and way too many references (spoken, mind you; not visual) to other, much better movies and sci-fi properties aside, there are some things I actually found entertaining – namely the Turtles themselves. While not developed in any satisfactory way, the graphics used to create them are really impressive and their movements are incredibly fluid and realistic. In fact, the only time they or any of the CGI looks fake is when it interacts directly with human beings. Which is a shame, really, since that’s pretty important. There are some genuinely goofy/funny moments with the Turtles as they interact and bicker or what have you. I’m not going to say some of it didn’t make my eyes roll, but they ultimately came across rather well.
There’s a surprisingly small amount of action in the film, save a couple of big sequences. The longest one is equal parts super entertaining and super confusing. The Turtles escape from Sachs’ compound in the snowy mountains (somewhere that’s only a short drive away from Manhattan in the springtime, by the way) with the help of April and Vern and end up sliding for a million miles downward in a semi truck while the Foot Clan in Hummers chase after them, firing electricity tethers. This sequence goes on SO LONG and is so kinetic and, I’ll say it, physically impossible, that I don’t even think falling down Mount Everest would take this long. Not to mention the Turtles hurl their bodies at cars and things and barely get hurt at all, much less the broken back or caved-in skull they probably would have gotten. That said, it’s actually fun to watch because it’s so fast-paced. Speed ramping happens too much, but hey, take what you can get.
Ultimately, who cares what I or any other grown-up film critic thinks? This is, as I said, a movie for kids. It’s not particularly smart, nor do any of the situations happen naturally, nor does it do much with the franchise so many people of my generation love because of nostalgia – but 8 year olds are going to think it’s the best thing ever, and that’s kind of what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been. Since the first cartoon, it’s been a way of entertaining kids with talking animals who do martial arts and crack jokes and eat pizza. It’s the stupidest premise ever! But little kids don’t care. After leaving the screening, and all the film snobs were talking about how dumb the movie was, I spied two little boys pretend karate fighting, clearly exhilarated by the movie they’d just seen. You can’t argue with results.