Cowabungle: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ is confidently mediocre

By JIM SABATASO | STAFF

I don’t like nostalgia. At best, it’s empty comfort food for your brain. At worst, it’s a delusion that devalues the present. The past was never as good as we remember it to be. Sure, I have fond memories of my own that I revisit on occasion — I’m not a robot — but public celebrations of days gone by drives me crazy. And it’s only getting worse. Between BuzzFeed and #tbt, I want to set my Facebook feed on fire almost daily.

Nostalgia is a trap; one the entertainment industry successfully traps us in year after year. As more and more ghosts of my childhood are dug up, rehashed, and rebooted, I’m finding myself increasingly uninterested in seeing the end result. To wit: I bailed on Transformers after the first one, and skipped the G.I. Joe movies altogether. I may have fond memories of both, but I know now that the cartoons were just poorly written infomercials for the next toy I’d beg my parents to buy me. Best to leave them in the past where they belong.

Enter the latest mutation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the 1980s comic book turned cartoon turned merchandising behemoth, which is now back with a new feature-length film directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Thirty years on, the turtles continue to thrive. Any question I had of their current relevance was dismissed recently when my friend’s three-year-old son showed up to a cookout rocking a Raphael t-shirt.

Featuring a quartet of genetically mutated turtles, who live in the sewers beneath Manhattan, eat pizza, and speak almost entirely in 80s surfer slang — cowabunga, dude! — the new film hews fairly close to the origin story set up in the cartoon series, with only slight variations.

All the familiar faces are here, including sniveling Channel 6 cameraman Vernon Fenwick, played by Will Arnett doing a variation on his Gob Bluth character. (There’s even a subtle Arrested Development Easter egg if you watch closely.)

Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), a rat mutated by the same process, serves as a sensei and father figure to the turtles. Like all rat-dads, Splinter trains them in the ways of the ninja warrior so they can defend the city against Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his Foot Clan crime syndicate. He also names them after Renaissance painters (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael), which is the beginning and end of any gesture this franchise has ever made toward being intelligent.

Along the way, they befriend TV news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who they all kind of crush on — an attraction that is no less weird here than it was when animated.

Like most current blockbusters, TMNT is a live-action, CGI smashfest. Liebesman, whose previous smashfest credits include Wrath of the Titans and Battle Los Angeles, may be behind the camera, but the destructive hand of executive producer Michael Bay is evident.

As such, the film is loud, dumb, and emotionally hollow. But that’s not necessarily the fault of Liebesman or Bay. Let’s face it: the turtles have always been dumb. The property never strived to be anything more than goofy popcorn entertainment for kids. In the cartoon, the storytelling was basic; there was no social commentary, no allegory, no humor beyond slapstick, no drama or tension.

To be fair, not all cartoons need aim so high. In the 80s, few did. But even among its peers, TMNT was a lightweight. DuckTales excelled at strong storytelling and smart references. Thundercats, while somewhat hackneyed, still managed to build a deep mythology. Indeed, both shows were forbearers to the more ambitious cartoons of the 1990s. Shows like Gargoyles, Batman: The Animated Series, and X-Men all strove for more complex narratives, deeper character development, and smarter plotting.

There is an expectation now among audiences that children’s entertainment attempt to engage adult viewers on some level. Perhaps, we’ve been spoiled by those rich texts from the 1990s, or the abundance of smart family films, like The Lego Movie, anything by Pixar, and all the Marvel films. Unfortunately, like its animated predecessor, TMNT never attempts to rise to the challenge set forth by its peers.

Early in the film, Vernon tells a frustrated April that she should take pride in the human-interest puff pieces they produce. Viewers want “candy,” he explains, so why not give it to them? Whether or not this scene is intentionally meta, it’s a perfect albeit cynical thesis for the film: shut up and eat your candy.

What follows is a sloppy, simplistic story that’s light both on character development and emotional heft. Distracting continuity issues abound. Was the inexplicable flip-flopping between spring and winter some sort of commentary on global warming? Is Times Square really a 20-minute drive from the White Mountains? (Is that with or without traffic?)

Indeed, every element in this movie seems to bend to the will of the plot. April’s decision to withhold photographic evidence gets her fired. The bad guys leave one of the turtles for dead without even bothering to check for a body. Even physics is not immune: a glass wall is unbreakable until it isn’t.

Visually, things don’t get much smarter. The design of the turtles is creepy. Their lipless, nostril-y faces and muscled physiques stand just at the edge of the uncanny valley. The Jim Henson Creature Shop costumes used in the 1990s TMNT films may have been clunky, but at least they had warmth to them. (Though props to the effects crew for making Pizza Hut look edible.)

As a villain, Shredder is an undeveloped and stock. The original Splinter/Shredder backstory, which added some depth to both characters, is absent here. Instead, Shredder is nothing more than a life-sized Swiss army knife. His costume is ridiculous and physically impractical, like something Bay threw together from whatever he had leftover from the last Transformers movie.

And front and center is Bay’s favorite CGI effect: Megan Fox. Like most of her performances, Fox isn’t much more than window dressing here, which is to say her flat performance is a good fit for a film that shoots so confidently for the middle. Why waste a more talented actor’s time? Fox is adequate here. Though to the film’s credit, Fox’s April is never a damsel in distress. Throughout the film, she’s an active agent, throwing herself headlong into the danger, and holding her own. So that’s something, I guess.

The biggest strike against TMNT may be how mediocre it is. It’s not good, but it’s far from bad. If it were terrible, at least it would have been entertaining. Instead, it’s just a bore — a middle of the road action flick that hits all the notes, and collects its money on its way toward its next installment. If dumb and loud is your thing, enjoy. But for those Millennials looking to catch yet another tubular wave of nostalgia, you might want to sit this one out.

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