As a child in the late '80s and early '90s, I was a passionate — you might say, obsessive — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. I had the games, the toys, the clothing, the VHS tapes, the scrapes and bruises from "playing turtles" on the playground. From the age of about 6 to 8 I refused to go anywhere in public without being at least semi-dressed as a turtle.
So, I went into an advance screening of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the franchise's big screen reboot, with both a deep love of the turtles, and enough space from my actual childhood to check out what is ostensibly a kid’s movie and not scoff. Both of these instincts served me well.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of a mess, but not an unpleasant one. The script is all over the place, with some surprisingly smart scenes, solid action and a profoundly dumb retconning of the turtles' origin story. There are eye-rolling lines aplenty and a gruesome pizza-related fart joke. It's not the smartest movie ever made, nor is it the wittiest. And it doesn't have the same charm as the 90s live action films (at least, the first two). But it is action-packed, more than a little funny, and it never takes itself too seriously.
the movie takes every opportunity to poke fun at itself
The film begins with a flashy motion comic sequence that explains the familiar (read: not-retconned) elements of the Turtles' backstory. Splinter — a speaking, six foot tall mutant rat and martial arts expert — has raised four intelligent, physically imposing mutant turtles from infancy and taught them to be morally-minded ninjas. And they all live together in a sewer. If you’re not onboard with the ridiculous premise, you’re already lost. Importantly, though, the movie knows how out there it is, and takes every opportunity to poke fun at itself.
We then arrive at the present, where a young reporter — April O’Neil, played by a slightly confused-looking Megan Fox — is digging for details about a wave of crime hitting the city. The foot clan — a group of criminals hell-bent on controlling New York through nefarious means — is kicking up a lot of dirt, and she wants to break the story.
April’s early scenes are played more or less straight, and there’s actually a hint of commentary about the news business. She wants to be an investigative reporter, she went to four years of journalism school, but the channel has her doing puff pieces about goofy fitness trends (probably because she’s a young woman). Her partner, Vernon (Will Arnett), tries to reason that people like a little "froth," and that there’s value to her work, but April would rather run straight into a war zone than be complacent.
That instinct leads her right to the turtles, who employ their own brand of vigilante justice to the foot clan. Adventures ensue, the acrobatic turtles kick a whole lot of bad guys to the curb, and a heroic plot to save New York City from certain doom is hatched.
the turtles themselves are an appealing bunch
If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles works, it's because the turtles themselves are an appealing bunch. There's Leonardo, the straight-laced leader (and let’s face it, the most boring guy in the group). Raphael is a badass with a chip on his shoulder. He butts heads with Leo in just about every scene. Donatello is a dorky genius, and Michelangelo is the party guy. They're brothers, they love each other, sometimes they hate each other, but they always have one another's backs.
The actors have good chemistry together, despite the CGI constraints. The interplay among the turtles is infectious, and the jokes come fast and hard. They don't always land — that awful fart joke is the worst offender — but more often than not, I found myself giggling along with the banter.
As for the way the turtles actually look, they appear roided-out and over-exaggerated — kind of like the film itself. Folks all over the internet (and one of my viewing companions) have commented on the turtles "gross" appearance, but the new look is consistent with the universe, filled as it is with bizarrely mutated animals and superhuman ninjas.
Fight scenes are plentiful and generally well-choreographed, though slow-motion is overused. One scene, taking place on a mountain during an avalanche, is positively exhilarating. It's funny, fast, unpredictable and shows the turtles at their best, thinking on their feet and kicking ass.
The way the film messes with the turtles' backstory is offensively stupid
This isn't to say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is exactly a home run. The way the film messes with the turtles' backstory is offensively stupid. The script generally has the subtlety of a brick to the face, and the "twist," if you can even call it that, will be predictable to even the youngest and least jaded children in the audience.
But for all of its faults, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles entertained me, and it never made me feel embarrassed for my childhood love of the goofy heroes from the sewers. That's much more than I can say for other franchises from my youth (Star Wars, Transformers, etc.), and far more than I was expecting out of a not-so-hot looking kid's summer movie.