The year 2014 has given us a Ninja Turtle movie that is better than before...
The last time the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appeared in a live-action feature movie was back in their third adventure in 1993. In those days, computer-generated images were not yet a staple of blockbuster films. If you wanted to bring the Turtles to life in that medium, you had to hire actors to wear Turtle costumes that included animatronic heads for off-screen puppeteers to operate and for voice actors to provide the Turtles' dialogue. That was a neat idea back then, but it would become fairly outdated by the end of the 1990s. Now you have a variety of superhero action movies that deliver much more intense action and often include advanced special effects. It is clear that a new Ninja Turtle movie in this era would have to follow suit.
The results are no doubt impressive. The four Turtles in this new 2014 film are towering reptiles who are skilled, though not invulnerable, as deadly warriors. Every blow they deal packs a powerful punch. The action that they get into is intense. Basically, the movie comes a long way from the three live-action Turtle movies of the early 1990s, which were lighter in action, geared more towards the family audience, and required a budget that is undoubtedly much less than what big-budget movies today typically require. If the filmmakers wanted to secure a place in pop culture for the Turtles three decades after being created in a 1984 black-and-white comic book, they have succeeded for sure.
Speaking of comic books, the opening of the film has the appearance of one, as it briefly introduces the setting: New York City, where the Foot Clan is responsible for a massive crime wave and where the four Turtles and their rodent master hide out in the city's sewers. It's quite impressive to say the least. Then the film begins, as Channel 6 reporter April O'Neill (Megan Fox) looks into Foot Clan activity at the city's docks. Her investigation leads her into a dangerous situation, after which she discovers the Ninja Turtles: Leonardo (the leader who wears blue and wields two katanas), Michelangelo (the clown with an orange bandanna and two nunchucks), Donatello (the tech geek with a purple headband and a bo staff), and Raphael (the hothead in red who fights with two sai). Soon, April meets Master Splinter, the mutant rat who has trained the Turtles in the art of ninjitsu.
As long as we're talking about the Turtles, we must not forget about their arch-nemesis who has appeared in many past Turtle incarnations in television, film, and video games: the Shredder. Ninja Turtle fans know him as a fierce Japanese warrior who leads the Foot Clan and wears a bladed suit of armor to intimidate his foes. In this movie, he is definitely a formidable opponent, especially with his metal suit that makes him look like, as one character puts it, a robot samurai. But he's not the only mysterious character to keep your eyes on. There is also a scientist named Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who once had a connection to April's father many years before. To the public, Sacks is a philanthropist, but to certain others, he has a secret agenda to carry out.
To be perfectly clear, I am somewhat of a Ninja Turtle fan, because I enjoyed the original TV cartoon from the 80s and 90s, the three live-action movies from the early 90s, the 2007 animated film, and a couple of Turtles video games. But I'm not a nitpicky fan who resists change. This is why I was impressed by the updates to the Turtle universe that give this 2014 movie a bit more realism and relevance in our current world. For example, the Foot Clan is a paramilitary force armed with machine guns, rather than street criminals trained to be ninjas. Also, Donatello wears eyeglasses in addition to his purple bandanna, which makes sense given how he must've been a bookworm and computer nerd growing up. Then there is Michelangelo, who in past Turtle universes was a clown with the personality of a mellow surfer, but is now a jokester who embraces hip-hop music. When you have mutant turtles who were raised in Manhattan sewers and able to observe the streets from below, it's natural for at least one of them to adopt what they see.
Perhaps my favorite update to the Turtles is their origin story. First off, let me note that it's not a very dramatic and blasphemous departure, like the Turtles being aliens from another world (which many Turtle fans actually feared before the film began shooting). The four Turtles and Master Splinter are still the result of ordinary animals growing physically and intellectually because of a powerful mutagen. But what's different here is the circumstance in which they come into contact with the mutagen. I won't say what it is, but it does show that the writer dared to be a little more creative instead of simply rehashing the origin story from the previous movies. I will also add that the flashback scene in this movie is done nicely and better than the flashback scene in the first live-action Turtle movie from 1990. Thanks to CGI, we can see a bit more of the Turtles' upbringing, including moments where they learn ninjitsu in their pre-teen years.
Even with elements of realism, this Turtle movie still retains one element from past Turtle movies: humor. I'm happy to say that the jokes are not overdone to the point where they hurt the movie. They are placed in a way that allows us to laugh for half a second while still feeling the momentum of the plot and action. There's really only one extended comedy scene, in which the Turtles need to reach the top of a building but have no choice but to use a slow elevator, prompting them to create music with their weapons during the boring ride up. Overall, the humor is just a minor secondary element, allowing the thrill ride to move forward at a good pace.
The result, after putting all the elements together, is a Ninja Turtle movie that is more exciting and fun than every Turtle movie that came before. The action is breathtaking, especially in my favorite scene involving a chase down a snowy mountain where the Turtles alternate between sliding down its surface on their shells and riding vehicles that are in or out of control. The movie is definitely an introductory movie, setting the stage for follow-up films, but there is still enough plot and character development to provide a complete movie. Speaking of characters, I should mention two more supporting characters of interest. One is Will Arnett as Channel 6 cameraman Vernon Fenwick who finds himself attracted to April (unlike the cowardly Vernon in the original TMNT cartoon). The other is Whoopi Goldberg as Channel 6 boss Bernadette Thompson (a reference to April's boss Burne Thompson in the same TMNT cartoon).
Basically, the movie works well, not on a deep level like Batman in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but just as a fun popcorn movie. It's running time of a little more than one-and-a-half hours does force the story to move a little quickly, but at least there is a good story for that time to be spent well. Overall, this Ninja Turtle movie can entertain the current and older generations of TMNT fans, if they can keep an open mind about new directions the franchise takes. I know I might be in the minority here, but I think the movie is a nice way to reboot those heroes in a half shell, with real Turtle Power. Cowabunga!
Anthony's Rating: 8/10
(Review originally published at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Film/T/Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles-2014.htm)