Print Edition - 2014-09-06  |  On Saturday

Sidekicks in a half shell

  • The latest iteration of the TMNT franchise doesn’t have any ambition other than to usher the green foursome into a new era of technological possibility, and feels sapped of the warmth and youthful energy that made them so well-loved
- Preena Shrestha
Sidekicks in a half shell

Sep 5, 2014-

It sets in within the first few minutes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the tedium--kicked off by a hammily-narrated prologue revealing the backstory of our reptilian protagonists and their enemies--leading you to wonder whether you’d done the smart thing bearing the drizzle and the resultant frizzy hair to get to the theatre on time. When around 20 minutes have passed, and the titular foursome are only just revealed, they’re so monumentally underwhelming that you peer around to see if anyone else looks as disappointed as you feel--although the 3D glasses make it a little difficult to tell. Fifty minutes down the line, having slogged through some clunky exposition and predictable double-crossing, you’re aware of the approach of a big battle of some sort and you know to hunker down for impact; this being a Michael Bay production, it’s going to be loud and long. But when 30 whole minutes have passed, and the fighting--more mindless, chaotic and incoherent than you could’ve imagined--shows no sign of letting up, your brain, tired of being so relentlessly pounded, simply checks out. And that, you realise too late, is the only way this new reboot of the franchise should be taken on.

The turtles were the brainchild of artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who introduced them in a self-published 1984 comic book that spawned a successful series. A few years later, a toyline was developed around the concept, followed quickly by an animated TV show, three live-action films, video games, animated feature films, another TV show and of course, oodles and oodles of merchandise--making the green foursome a veritable pop-culture landmark. This latest iteration, however, doesn’t appear to have any ambitions other than to usher the franchise into a new era of technological possibility, jack it up with CGI muscle, with the result that it feels very detached and sapped of the warmth and youthful energy that has rendered these characters so well-loved over the years. Jonathan Liebesman (Battle of Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) might be credited as director, but the film bears signs of Bay’s handiwork through and through--over-produced action, haphazard destruction, manic camerawork, bland humour, blatant product placement and requisite female eye-candy--much like a Transformers film, except without the giant robots.

The story is basically your run-of-the-mill origins stuff. Megan Fox plays TV reporter April O’Neil, who’s sick of the fluff she’s given to cover, and is itching to get into hard news. She’s about to get her break: Criminal organisation the Foot Clan, led by the hulking, metal-armour-donning Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), has been gaining ground in New York, but there’s a group of masked someones fighting them off.

April follows these mysterious vigilantes and discovers that they are no ordinary humans, but genetically-modified turtles--Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville, played by Peter Ploszek), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson)--who ended up in the city’s sewers when a lab experiment went haywire. They were then trained in the martial arts by their ‘father’, a similarly mutated rat called Splinter (Tony Shaloub, played by Danny Woodburn), courtesy of a book on ninjutsu he’d found lying around somewhere. Yep, a book. April, accompanied by colleague Vernon (Will Arnett), is now enlisted to help the gang uncover whatever awful scheme the Clan has in mind--one that also ropes in scientist and industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), an acquaintance of April’s, in a most unsurprising manner--and bring it to a halt before any lasting damage is done.

The technology might have come a ways since Jim Henson’s half-costume/half-puppet designs for the earlier live-action projects, and there’s no doubt that today’s turtles--created via motion-capture--are more naturalistic in detail (they have nostrils!). But slicker hasn’t necessarily translated to more personality, which Henson’s creations, despite their rubbery goofiness, exuded plenty of. Part of the problem is the fact that the film’s narrative seems far more interested in the humans--one human, in particular--than our anthropomorphic friends, and makes scanty effort to flesh them out as individuals. There’s even a pandering subplot phoned in to make O’Neil absolutely indispensible to the turtles’ existence. We know who the four are, thanks to the colour of their masks and their voices, but they’re pretty interchangeable otherwise, and little more than side-acts in the April O’Neil/Megan Fox Show.

Speaking of Fox, she appears to be back in Bay’s good graces after getting kicked off of the Transformers for likening the director to Hitler. Add to that the fact that there’s an actual hint of a feminist statement early in the film, with O’Neil ranting about not being taken seriously in the workplace, and one starts to wonder if there are pigs somewhere readying to take flight. But then the camera proceeds to ogle over Fox’s shapely behind--as do most males in the film, including one of the turtles, serving up a disturbing comment I’d much sooner forget--nipping that illusion right in the bud. As far as emoting goes, the actress might well be a mannequin; she basically retains the same expression throughout.

What the new TMNT lacks, most noticeably, is a sense of fun. For a franchise first conceived as a parody of the mythology-heavy, clichéd caped crusaders of the time, there is precious little of that light-heartedness to be found in this reboot. Sure, there are a few self-aware moments, like when one of the turtles accuses the other of putting on a “Batman voice”, or a fun elevator ride that turns into a musical gag, but you could count these on one hand. Instead, makers have opted to go down the serious path, with a tone that just doesn’t match the source material and a plot that is as perfunctory as they come, ending up with something generic, no different and no more memorable than your average big-studio superhero spectacle.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just isn’t worth the price of admission, which, in 3D, can be pretty darn steep. You’re bound to be disappointed, especially if you’ve been a fan of the series; that playful banter and the sheer kookiness of the premises have all been flattened here. In fact, if it’s a nostalgic kick you’re after, you’d be much better off watching another recently-released film based on these characters--Randall Lobb’s Turtle Power, a fun, fact-packed documentary that illuminates the history of the franchise, right from its humble black-and-white beginnings on the page. It’s those beginnings that the new film could’ve benefitted from paying more heed to.

Published: 06-09-2014 08:54

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