Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Hokey Adaptation That Spoke To A Generation: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of effects
The Bad: Predictable story, Mediocre acting, Over-choreographed fight sequences, Light on bonus features.
The Basics: A generally lousy live-action rendition of the comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles starts the franchise awkwardly with terrible acting and a predictable story.

For our recent fifteen month anniversary, my wife and I exchanged gifts and I gave her my gift for her knowing that it would come back to bite me in the butt later on. I gave her a Blu-Ray set of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and that pretty much committed me to watching them with her. Today, we sat down together and watched the undeniably cheesy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a live-action film based upon the comic book series that was huge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Before today, my only real experience with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was with the animated series and accompanying video game. When I was in Middle and High schools, I did some baby-sitting work for a family and the boy I sat for loved the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the video game (I'm suddenly realizing I have no clue what game platform it was for, despite the fact that I can remember some of the images in my head). It is somewhat daunting to think that my wife is actually younger than the boy I sat for. Either way, she grew up on movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and thus, today, I watched the movie with her.

New York City is going through a crime wave of petty theft that the police seem unable to stop. Intrepid news reporter April O'Neil is reporting on the crime wave when she is assaulted by the Foot Clan, the perpetrators of the thefts. While her boss pressures her to play nice with City Hall and the Police Commissioner, Danny, his son, joins the thieving. As Danny's life takes a turn in the wrong direction, April is rescued from her attackers by a quartet of oversized, talking turtles who have ninja skills and can attack without being seen. April wants to investigate them and soon she actually meets Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michaelangelo, the mutant turtles. While April begins to put the pieces together, Raphael stops a robbery and meets the vigilante Casey Jones. Casey is a hockey-mask wearing fighter who takes a more aggressive turn at fighting the Foot Clan's minions.

Soon, everyone is in danger as Danny reveals the location of the Turtles' lair to the Foot Clan and they descend upon it, capturing Master Splinter, the oversized rat mentor of the Turtles. After a crushing defeat by the Foot Clan, the Turtles, April and Casey flee to the suburbs to regroup. All the while, Splinter is in the hands of the nefarious Shredder!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from the outset, is not trying to be great cinema. However, there is only so far that camp value goes for me and it is hard not to consider the movie an absolute failure. The jokes are utterly corny, the plot is unfortunately predictable and the acting is homogeneously bad. That said, some of the puppetteering work is actually good and there are remarkably few scenes where the seam on the Turtles' masks are actually visible.

So, to start with what is good, we would have to say the direction. Steve Barron directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and he actually has several shots in the course of the movie that lend dramatic tension well to the events he is capturing on film. There are moments when Barron makes the movie feel like an epic hero tale, especially in the introduction of the Shredder. And for a movie where the viewer is meant to know from the beginning that they will be watching giant foam rubber turtles on screen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles takes a decent amount of time before the reveal of the heroes.

This is not an origin story, though how the Turtles became mutated is presented in some of the most visually inconsistent sequences of the movie. More often than not, the viewer is meant to think that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a transition film, the four turtles learning to live and survive without Splinter. On that front, the movie cops out pretty heavily and the viewer begins to feel like there is an unnecessarily high level of schmaltz to the work. The viewer is jerked around believing that Splinter is in mortal peril, but while there is a lot of stylized violence (especially for a PG movie!) most of the most important events are simply glossed over. In other words, most of Splinter's torture is implied, not seen. And, oddly, in the final moments of the movie one of the heroes makes a pretty disturbing action which seems to go against the heroic code.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is predictable in everything but the dialogue. The dialogue is largely a series of wisecracks which are jokes that range from verbal slapstick to nonsequitors and there is a very "guys roughhousing" feel to much of what is said in the film. From pretty much the moment Casey Jones meets April O'Neil viewers can see that the film will have a romantic subplot, which will not center around one of the Turtles having a crush on April. The conflict for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is fairly forced then. The mysterious crime wave bleeds into the Splinter abduction story and the retreat teaches the Turtles the Very Important Lesson necessary to bring about the Happy Ending. It is very cliche.

What is not cliche, but is just terrible is the acting, especially by lead Judith Hoag. Hoag plays April O'Neil and Steve Barron deserves kudos for casting someone who looks like a real person. Unfortunately, in straying away from the Hollywood beautiful ideal, Barron also neglects acting ability and Hoag is frequently underwhelming-at-best with the deliveries of her lines. In fact, the rubber turtles frequently have more expressive facial expressions than Hoag. This completely fails to sell the viewer on the reality of the film.

On Blu-Ray, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes with the theatrical trailer for the movie - which would be enough for more audiences to realize the film was worth avoiding - and a commercial for a TMNT video game which completely didn't sell me on it.

Ultimately, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is unsurprisingly campy. The script is predictable, but takes a fantastically weird concept and makes it into a banal buddy comedy movie. The only real surprise here is that this effectively birthed a franchise!

For other films based on comic book characters, please check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
The Dark Knight


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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