I honestly believe that filmmakers are never set out to make a bad movie. It’s sometimes due to the unforeseen circumstances of script changes, on-set dramas, interruptions by producers, and the pieces not fitting together right. I feel that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the unfortunate result of other circumstances. And sadly, ones that could’ve been controlled by the studio. There’s no doubt that this is an attempt to bring the Turtles to a new generation of moviegoers. But in trying to do so, the filmmakers have come up with an empty narrative that neglects the fascinating, weird and wonderful story of four brothers and their sensei up against a world that has yet to accept them.
To bring a film to life is not a small or easy endeavor, so I’ll try to keep my criticism of the movie to something constructive. The creative powers behind this latest outing had their hearts in the right place, but missed the actual heart of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
WARNING: Some spoilers will be revealed.
We open with a voiceover from Splinter (Tony Shalhoub’s voice) giving the audience an exposition of the world’s current situation: New York City is losing its peace and security to the Foot Clan. With crime on the rise and assaults happening daily, Splinter awaits the day when his sons, the Turtles, will be ready to rise to the surface and fight for good.
The scene quickly cuts to fledgling reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) at a dock attempting to interview a man who has knowledge on the Foot. April’s one motivation in life is to work on a story that’ll make a difference, and breaking an investigative piece on the criminal organization is her golden ticket. Her loyal friend and cameraman, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), thinks that there’s no shame in reporting on what he endearingly calls “frothy” pieces — or for example, as seen in the movie, news segments that involve a trendy, new, ridiculous exercise.
Biking alone that night, April comes across the same dock — but conveniently runs into Foot activity. She witnesses vigilantes taking down the Foot, but is unable to get any evidence except for a Japanese Kanji scribed onto one of the shipment containers. Bringing this to the attention of her editor (Whoopi Goldberg) and co-workers, April is mocked and ridiculed.
A few nights later, the Foot attack a subway station and hold the awaiting passengers on the platform hostage. Seeing this as another story opportunity, April puts herself in danger and runs into the station. She’s quickly taken hostage also, but the lights suddenly go out — the Turtles arrive on a speeding subway train and easily take out the Foot. Amidst the chaos, April follows the stealthy Turtles up to the top of a building. Attempting to take a photo of the four vigilantes, her location is given away by the flash on her phone. After a rough meeting where she faints and then learns their names, April’s memory is triggered — the Turtles and Splinter were originally experimental animals used in her father’s lab. When the lab caught on fire, they were rescued and set free into the sewers by her. Unfortunately, April’s father died in the inferno.
Meanwhile, the citizens of New York City have one shining hope for them in the form of Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) — a wealthy industrialist who hopes to use revolutionary medicine to help victims of bio-terror attacks. We learn that when he was young, his military father was stationed in Japan. Being an outsider and neglected, Eric, in a way, was adopted by Shredder. After growing up and finding success, his main goal has been to seek out an ancient formula, or mutagen, that had once helped a Japanese village during feudal times. But Eric’s true motivations are much darker — he wants to create a bio-attack himself and gain riches when he introduces the mutagen. April later finds out that the mutagen is what her father had been working on at the time he died. Since the mutagen was destroyed in the fire, the only remnants of the formula reside in the Turtle’s blood.
The rest of the movie is basically driven by Eric chasing down the Turtles and using Shredder and his Foot Clan to implement his devious plans.
A Not So Rewritten History
Here’s the biggest problem with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: unfaithful to the source material in the attempt at being original. I say “attempt” because the characterization of Splinter and his Turtles seem to be inspired by the original comics (Splinter starting out as a rat who had a human caretaker). But the key difference is that Hamato Yoshi is never mentioned in the movie, nor is Oroku Saki, Shredder’s true identity.
In the original comics, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Hamato Yoshi was a high-ranking member of the Foot Clan. He had a pet rat named Splinter who would mimic Yoshi’s movements when Yoshi practiced his ninjitsu. Yoshi later fell in love with and married a woman named Tang Shen. Tang Shen’s other admirer, Oroku Nagi, was jealous of their love. One night, Nagi tries to force himself onto Shen. Walking in on the assault, Yoshi kills Nagi. Given the punishment options of death or exile, Yoshi chooses to leave with Shen and Splinter for the United States, and they end up settling in New York City. Meanwhile, Nagi’s brother, Oroku Saki has climbed the ranks of the Foot. Bent on revenge, Saki tracks down Yoshi and Shen and murders both of them. Splinter escapes to the sewers, comes into contact with the mutagen, and mutates with four abandoned pet turtles.
In later animated incarnations, Yoshi sometimes had the backstory of being in the Foot Clan, but he was almost always married to Tang Shen (sans the original animated series that ran from 1987 to 1996 where the character of Tang Shen didn’t exist and the reasons for Splinter’s exile are different). And the character of Oroku Nagi was permanently removed. Oroku Saki, now, had the added characterization of also being the one that chased after Tang Shen’s love and grew jealous of Yoshi. However, the biggest sustained history change is that Splinter and Hamato Yoshi are the same character — Yoshi transforms into a human-sized rat when he comes into contact with the mutagen while in the presence of a rat. The Turtles, in these incarnations, were originally his own pet turtles.
In the reboot, Splinter has no Japanese ties. His and the Turtles’ mutations were not accidental — they were a direct result of being experimented on. Post-mutation, he learns ninjitsu from a book he accidentally finds on the sewer floor. After mastering the martial art, he mentors his Turtles on combat and discipline. This backstory overhaul, along with others, had too many random conveniences and plot holes. The origins from the comics and past incarnations were exponentially more superior, which baffled me as to why the filmmakers felt the need to change it.
By excising a previous rivalry between Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki, and changing the origins of Splinter’s skills, the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles neglected a rich history that could’ve upped the conflict and provided some great character development. Because each character was going on empty, random motivations, the plot felt contrived and unsatisfying.
Since Eric Sacks was also using Shredder as his own personal muscle (even though Sacks is said to be working for Shredder), the character of Shredder was relegated to nothing more than a henchman. Certainly not as bad as the version of Bane from 1997’s Batman & Robin, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this version of Shredder was similar. Herein lies one of the other larger issues: Shredder is one of the most threatening and calculating villains in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe. And to have him become second fiddle, the filmmakers missed out on an opportunity to use a great antagonist.
The soldiers of the Foot Clan were also dramatically diluted. They were neither bionic robots nor well-trained ninjas carrying out Shredder’s orders. The ones in the reboot were more akin to mercenaries who looked like Halloween mask-wearing guys working for a private military company.
Another major complaint I have is the absence of Krang or The Kraang (renamed and re-characterized for the 2012 animated series) and any mention of Dimension X. Those features seem to be completely dissected out of the current reboot. It’s understandable why the previous live-action films didn’t have Krang, as the effects would’ve been horrible using 1990s technology. But in our current era of advanced CGI normalcy, Krang or The Kraang could’ve been brought to life in a spectacular fashion.
As I said before, the character motivations were empty. April O’Neil wanting to become a great reporter was logical, but this goal was thrown to the side after she got fired. The ending also never resolved her internal goals of wanting to be taken seriously.
One of the biggest flaws in the film’s goals was Eric Sacks’s mission of becoming wealthy. He also blatantly makes the statement of wanting to become wealthy after he divulges his nefarious plans. This doesn’t make sense as Sacks is already wealthy at the beginning of the film. He’s the one seen as the savior with the resources to save New York City.
What could be worse than strange goals? No goals at all. The Turtles and Splinter didn’t seem to have anything motivating them other than immediate danger. What’s seen as the real goal doesn’t really come into effect until the third act — when they need to retrieve the remaining vial of mutagen — which came from their own blood anyways.
Not All is Lost
Amongst all the criticism that I have for this film, there are a small number of things that the writers and creative powers do right. Like I said, I want this to be constructive.
They do give Michelangelo and Donatello somewhat distinctive personalities from the rest of the Turtles. I would’ve liked to have seen Leonardo and Raphael differentiated more. At times, with one having a bad temper and the other being a headstrong leader, it was hard to distinguish their characters.
Some of the Turtles’ humor also paid homage to the past movies and animated series. However, during some parts of the movie, they may have been a bit too serious, as the traditional charm of the Turtles has always been their ability to make light of many situations and act like … well … teenagers.
Will Arnett also deserves some credit for his work. We’ve mostly seen him play extremely over-the-top characters in shows like Arrested Development and The Increasingly Bad Decisions of Todd Margaret. But here, he takes everything down a notch and is still just as funny in his delivery of lines and emotions. Though his affections for April O’Neil are blatant, Arnett’s Vernon Fenwick isn’t obnoxious and acts more like a caring friend hoping to go to the next level.
The new character designs of the Turtles aren’t bad. I do agree with some fans, though, that they seem to be rather large and their ninja tactfulness has been replaced with more brute force techniques (e.g. smashing SUVs and trucks with their shells). And for some reason, the Turtles in this version are also bulletproof, which is another convenience that takes out all the conflict and tension. I’m use to the Turtles being a little shorter than the average person, and using that size to their advantage in terms of stealth and agility. I mean, they’re ninjas right?
What I Would’ve Done
When I first heard that they were rebooting the Turtles, I was actually very excited. I had a pseudo screenplay already planned in my head. I thought, “Man, we’re finally going to get a good Turtles live-action origin story. And we can actually see all that craziness with today’s CGI technology!” As more of the plot and character designs were revealed, my excitement waned. After seeing the movie, it was far from what I had expected.
My initial wish was that we were going to get a reboot akin to Batman Begins — the true origin and motivations of each character. Even if it was played linearly, the film would’ve still been chock full of excitement. Every incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has used flashbacks to show the characters’ origins. It would’ve been great to start the movie off in Japan with us meeting Hamato Yoshi for the first time, watching him take care of his pet turtles, caring for his family, and losing his family. This would’ve made me care about the characters more. It would’ve also strengthened Oroku Saki as a villain. How does someone seen as a brother turn on you? The character arcs would’ve been dramatic and interesting.
I would’ve also not used Shredder as a main antagonist (though in the current reboot, I would argue that Shredder is little more than a bodyguard) or as any type of antagonist at all. Krang and General Traag would’ve been good villains. At the end, I would hint that Shredder will be in a follow-up sequel — much like how The Joker was hinted at right before the end of Batman Begins.
Origin stories are finicky, but the Turtles and Splinter deserve one. Many of the elements I or any fan would’ve wanted to see could’ve been fixed by a fan-driven writer or director. I can see why they tossed out the source material as they thought that maybe a new generation of kids would find the early 1980s-created myths to be irrelevant. But trust me, there’s a reason why Nickolodeon’s current animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been such a success — which is why it surprised me that this Nickelodeon-produced reboot didn’t get any help from internal sources who were making the current series.
From the characterizations to the lack of motivations and goals, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned out to be an empty, uninspiring film. In their attempts to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with, the filmmakers came out with a movie that wasn’t made for fans or general audiences. And that’s the true shame of a film like this. As horrible as some films are, they sometimes end up having a cult following — I don’t see that happening with this version of the Turtles.
What is even more ironic is that this film seems to make a meta-statement that goes against the tradition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The franchise has always presented an allegory of accepting differences — embracing the weird. The Turtles themselves long to hang out with human beings and are in love with human pop culture. But to people, they’ll always seem a bit “freaky” or “strange.” Splinter also learns to accept what he has become, and sees the Turtles and April O’Neil as his family. This new reboot’s attempt at making the Turtles more mainstream, by taking out the wonderfully bizarre elements of the narrative, has basically given audiences this message: it’s not okay to be unique.
A lot of people may say that this movie has completely destroyed their childhood or destroyed the franchise. I would definitely say that’s a false statement. You can ignore this entry and still have the comic books, past films, and television incarnations. Though I’m disappointed in this reboot, I do hold out hope that someone out there will make a proper Turtles movie. They did reboot Planet of the Apes twice — and look at how the second iteration turned out.
Did you see the movie? What did you think? Sound off in the comments.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was released in the United States on Friday, August 8, 2014.
Tags: April O'Neil Donatello Eric Sacks Hamato Yoshi IDW Kevin Eastman Leonardo Michelangelo Mirage Movies Nickelodeon Oroku Saki Peter Laid Raphael Shredder Splinter Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Foot Clan Tony Shalhoub Vernon Fenwick Will Arnett