The 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot was treading on thin ice. Not only are reboots so commonplace these days that they’re almost parodying themselves, but early script leaks showcasing massive changes to the source material had TMNT fans enraged years before its release. Not to mention the presence of producer Michael Bay – who has directed the Transformers series into one of cinema’s most ghastly and incoherent franchises – didn’t help things much.
As it turns out, the script leaks were one of the best things that could have happened to this TMNT reboot, as the filmmakers seemed to take note of the fan feedback to turn the 2014 film into a more traditional Ninja Turtles film… meaning that it’s not necessarily a good movie (as its storytelling is muddled and its characters underdeveloped), but it can provide a fun time for fans of the franchise.
In this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the four titular turtles Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), as well as their rat sensei, Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), get a revamped origin story.
Here, the turtles and Splinter didn’t happen upon any mutagenic ooze, but were instead test subjects in a lab, who experimented on them in an attempt to create a mutagen that could make humans resistant to diseases. One of the scientists involved with the experiment is the father of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who is working for Erick Sacks (William Fichtner). This being a Ninja Turtles movie, the experiment is actually a front to a darker purpose conducted by Sacks, under order from his master, Oroku Saki (Tohoru Masamune), who is secretly the leader of the Foot Clan, the Shredder.
April’s father of course discovers the true purpose of the experiment, and sets fire to the lab to destroy Sack’s plan from coming to fruition, before being killed in the ensuing chaos. A young April O’Niel rescued the turtles and Splinter from the fire, and set them free in the sewer, where they began to mutate over the years, as a side effect of the experiments. The mutated animals eventually gained humanoid properties and intelligence, becoming the Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter we now know.
Truth be told, I don’t really mind the change in the Turtles’ origins to give them a history with April O’Neil (she even gives them their names in this version). In this day and age, when we’re seeing so many origin stories from franchises we all know by heart being retold over and over, I suppose a tweak in an established origin story is actually kind of a nice change of pace.
The problem with this origin story, however, comes with the ninja aspects of the titular characters. In the traditional story, Splinter was the pet rat of a man who practiced ninjitsu, giving a stronger (albeit silly) reason why the these pizza obsessed, New Yorker turtles have learned the ways of the ninja from a giant sewer rat. But here, Splinter just happens upon a book on ninjitsu while sweeping the sewer floors one day, and decides to teach himself the art of the ninja, and pass it down to his adopted sons.
Granted, the Ninja Turtles, even in their original comic books, were supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, so a bit of nonsense is to be expected. But having Master Splinter know all of his ninja wisdom from some little book that he just happened to find in the sewers of New York is pushing things a bit.
Whatever though. This is still a Ninja Turtles movie, more so than Michael Bay’s atrocious Transformers films are Transformers movies, that’s for damn sure. So if there are stupid details in the plot, well, they aren’t exactly ruining a magnum opus.
Anyway, fast-forward to the present, and April O’Neil is a down-on-her-luck news reporter trying to find a big story to jumpstart her career. Together with her cameraman Vern (Will Arnett), April may have just found such a story as the villainous Foot Clan has started a crime spree in New York City, and that a mysterious, ninja-like foursome of vigilantes has taken the fight to the Foot. Unfortunately for April, her story about four humanoid turtles peaks the interest of Sacks, who seeks to find a way to resurrect his and Shredder’s long-dormant plot.
The plot is, as stated, quite silly. On the bright side, the story does allow for some good old-fashioned Ninja Turtles action (one action scenario sees the Turtles fighting the Foot Clan while riding down a mountain, which is far more exhilarating than any of the action scenes in the 1990s trilogy). On the downside, there are some questionable narrative aspects, even by Ninja Turtles’ standards.
Besides the aforementioned convenient ninjitsu book, the glaring narrative issue seems to be the villain scenario. Sacks seems to be the far more prominent villain than Shredder in the film. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if the movie more properly made Shredder out to be the “big bad” behind the scenes, but it doesn’t. The villainous plot all seems to be for Sacks’ benefit, with Shredder’s presence seeming tacked on. There actually is a reason for that, as the character who would become Sacks was originally intended to be the Shredder in the infamous leaked script, before fan outcry against the departure from the character’s Japanese heritage, which is a pretty prominent part of Shredder’s character. While the studio reconsidering Shredder’s overhaul was probably for the best in regards to future installments, it ends up leaving the Turtles’ arch nemesis feeling like an afterthought in this film.
If the movie has one other great flaw, it’s that the Ninja Turtles themselves are just too ugly. Sure, the CGI used to bring them to life is believable and detailed enough, but the art direction for the turtles is just unpleasant to look at. You get the feeling that the filmmakers wanted to “realistically” capture the look of a humanoid turtle, but maybe they should have stopped to think if that was the best route to go with the characters. By trying to make the Ninja Turtles look more human, they’ve only made them look creepy. More often than not, if a character is stylized to look cartoonish, there’s a reason for it.
Look, if you want a great piece of cinema, you’re obviously looking in the wrong place if you choose to watch 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But if you’re a long-time Turtles fan, or a younger TMNT tyke, then the first entry of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot is, much like the first two entries from the 1990s, a good dose of Ninja Turtles fun. Sure, its story is riddled in nonsense and the Turtles are rough on the eyes, but 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an easy guilty pleasure for those who know the franchise.