Box Office Democracy: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”
It’s worth noting that I loved all three of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles released in the early 90s even though there is no way those movies hold up. I looked at clips on YouTube this week and could barely stomach a few minutes. This reboot of the franchise is objectively better than those movies. I don’t know that people will look back on it fondly in 24 years but there’s a level of commitment in production design and casting that goes above and beyond what we got with cash-in kids movies two decades ago. While this new revival of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably the perfect thing for the audience of pre-teen and pre-pre-teen boys it wasn’t particularly enjoyable for me.
The design of the Ninja Turtles is a revelation this time around. Rather than being the lazy palette swaps they were for decades all four turtles have unique looks this time around. They’re different in size, they wear different gear, and they even have different mask designs. This does so much to communicate character that was ignored for so long I didn’t even consider it as an option. I feel strange lavishing praise on this movie for something any competent costume designer could have done in 1990 with no problem at all (people have been wearing clothes in movies for decades) but they just didn’t try before.
The increased emphasis on production design is wasted a little on a movie that generally looks unpleasant. I’ve been telling people that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles looks like a movie I wouldn’t want to touch and that’s not just because there are reptile monsters as principle cast members. Everything, even human-only scenes, looks so slick and shiny that it comes across as slimy. It permeates the entire film and made me uncomfortable in the theater. I might be an edge case but everyone I’ve shared this idea with has instantly understood what I was talking about. I’m sure executive producer Michael Bay had very little direct hand in the visual look of this film but it sure felt like someone was trying, and failing, to imitate his signature style and it spilled in to something worse.
It feels terrible to say this but I’m not sure that I will ever really believe Megan Fox when she’s playing a smart character. I don’t believe she’s smart in her day-to-day life and she isn’t a good enough actress to convince me her characters are. Her April O’Neil is a more essential part of this story than past Turtles stories and this results in her having to carry an incredible narrative load and she doesn’t seem capable of enduring that kind of strain. She never seems clever enough to deduce the things she does and the emotion she plays most often is a combination scared and confused that doesn’t serve the story. Will Arnett is wasted as the vaguely pervy cameraman. He’s the second most important human character almost by default and while he does great work with what he’s given it isn’t nearly enough and I found myself focusing on him when he was on screen waiting for moments that never came. This is probably not a problem 12 year-olds will have.
Ultimately this movie is trying to appeal to two audiences: young people now who could become hooked on the franchise for life and people who were hooked on a previous incarnation of the franchise and are consuming the new product for nostalgia. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does a great job of appealing to the former audience but offers little for the latter half to really enjoy once they’ve gotten over the idea that Megan Fox is nice to look at. The hype was good enough to bring enough of that older crowd in for a big opening weekend but they’re going to have to really hook that younger demographic to make this a winning franchise long term. While this movie is certainly competently produced enough to do it I wish it had been able to do a little more for the six year-old inside of me.