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Zaki's Review: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (2014)

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In a measure of just how calculated a product Paramount's Michael Bay-produced reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, we get to see Megan Fox jumping up-and-down on a trampoline within five minutes of the opening titles. Talk about knowing your audience!

Of course, I doubt things like "subtlety" and "restraint" were high on the list of action items when parent company Viacom acquired the Turtles lock, stock, and half-shell five years ago, and you kind of have to respect how this new take, directed by Battle LA's Jonathan Liebesman, resolutely sticks to Bay's road-tested template of babes, bombast, and brainlessness (which has, to be fair, minted a cool bil for Par as recently as this summer's Transformers: Age of Extinction -- which I didn't hate, by the way). While this pic benefits from motion-captured CGI portrayals of the titular teens that leap, twist, and bound through a digitally-created New York cityscape with unquestionable aplomb, it's undone by a needlessly-convoluted story that's long on contrivance and short on common sense.

Before I get to the synopsis, a brief recap of my own history with the Turtles (which were created by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird in 1984): Like most kids of my vintage, I discovered them first via the late-'80s animated series, coupled with the simultaneous action figure assortment from Playmates. By the time the first movie hit theaters in 1990 when I was the ripe old age of eleven, I felt the nuclear shockwave of its impact all the way in Saudi Arabia, where I was living at the time. I revisited that film, which used Jim Henson-created animatronic suits to bring its leads to life, for the first time in twenty years this past week. I appreciated its low-budget grittiness, and was surprised by its moments of raw emotionality.

What the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which was the number one independent movie of all time for awhile there) really got right was to create a believable world for its inherently unbelievable characters to exist within. The reboot, by contrast, is dogged by the same problems as Sony's Spider-Man redux: ladling in coincidence and predestination instead of trusting in the simplicity of its own premise. In fact, the biggest problem with this Turtles is how embarrassed it seems of its own central conceit. I'm not saying they needed to go as far as the bonkers "talking brain-space aliens" stuff from the '80s cartoon, but in attempting to make this telling feel more "grounded" and realistic, it only draws more attention to the essential artifice of the whole endeavor.

For example, while this story (by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and Evan Daugherty) still has the Turtles turn into anthropomorphic martial artists after exposure to mysterious mutagen, their transformation (as well as that of their rat mentor Splinter, voiced by Tony Shalhoub) is tied in to crusading reporter April O'Neill (Fox), who cared for them as a child, and whose scientist father worked with villain #1, industrialist Eric Saks (William Fichtner), who is a student of villain #2, the evil ninja Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Now, what's interesting about that last bit is that when Fichtner was first announced for the film, it was, per Fichtner's own admissionas Shredder (indeed, his character's name is an obvious anglicization of Shredder's real name of Oroku Saki).

For whatever reason, at some point between the casting announcement and the film's release, the decision was made to de-couple Saks and Shredder. This in turn makes the entire third act, a typically Bay-esque bit of hugger mugger with the Turtles racing to stop Shredder (re-imagined here as an armored cross between a Swiss Army Knife and Megatron from the Transformers flicks) from unleashing a toxin on New York from high atop a skyscraper, feel like it was pasted together in the edit suite. This in turn manages to do a disservice to both Fichtner and Masamune. And as far as the nominal star of the thing, Megan Fox, it's hard to really criticize her since she does exactly what she's tasked with by the script, and nothing more.

On the plus side, personality-wise at least, these are the same Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo that we know and love from thirty years of media adaptations (a highlight is a moment near the end, with our heroes passing the time on a very long elevator ride). That said, I'm not crazy about the juiced-up versions here, impossibly-muscled and towering over the film's human cast (which also includes a wasted Will Arnett, by the way). Also, the decision to eschew the Turtles' traditional snouts in favor of flaring nostrils ends up stranding them on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. It all feels like change for the sake of change. I'm not saying this is a concept that should remain untouched for all time, but Michael Bay may simply be one mutation too many. D