The issue with this new version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t so much the plot – which of course is silly, uncomplicated, and escapist – or the actors, who succeed in being no more than what the screenplay requires them to be. The real issue is that, much like the vastly overrated 2011 Muppets reboot, the title characters aren’t allowed to be the stars of their own movie. They’re relegated to the level of sidekicks, their sparse dialogue inane and inconsequential, not taking part in any of the action sequences so much as blending into the background. The scenes featuring them alone are not only few and far between but are also so irrelevant to the overall plot that they come off as afterthoughts.
To be sure, the title characters have never looked better. Rather than costumed actors with silly animatronic heads, as was the case in the live-action adaptations of the 1990s, or cheap-looking Saturday-morning-cartoon CGI, as was the case with 2007’s abysmal TMNT, they’re now brought to life via motion capture animation. And while there’s no way to make them look realistic, they certainly lack the simplified anthropomorphisms common to family-friendly cartoon characters – wide eyes that convey anger or sadness or happiness with just a tilt of slanted brow lines, faces that can smile or frown or grimace or whistle through pursed lips. On a technical level, the filmmakers went the extra mile.
But what’s the use of making that effort if the characters are made to be upstaged? Why would the intention of a film called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be to not prominently feature teenage mutant ninja turtles? I’m thinking hard here, and I’m coming up with nothing. With them, you have at least the potential for mindless good fun. Without them … well, it simply won’t be what the title has conditioned audiences to expect. That’s a shame, because with today’s ticket prices, seeing it will cost a pretty penny, especially if they opt for a presentation in 3D. Yes, 3D is a choice for watching this film, as it is for just about all movies with science fiction, action, animated, or fantasy leanings. I’ve already made known my feelings about it.
As for the human characters, I was really rather indifferent about them. They do what’s expected of them in movies like this, which I suppose I can’t fault them for, and yet at no point are we ever made to actually invest in them, to see them as anything other than cardboard cutouts. I suppose this can be an effective approach, if done correctly. Consider 1996’s Independence Day; perhaps perfectly aware that there was no way to smarten up the material, director Roland Emmerich populated the film with broad characters that fit into the material neatly and had their roles to play: The technician who predicts doom and gloom; the weary President of the United States; the fighter pilot who has all the cool dialogue; the schvitzing gay man; the nerdy scientist; the drunken survivor of an alien abduction; etc.
But in the case of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the characters don’t have that sense of subtle parody. They simply inhabit the story, going through the motions without giving us much of a reason to care. There’s April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a news reporter who obviously can’t get anyone to believe that she encountered gigantic talking turtles. If she could, it might get her taken more seriously, and thus given greater opportunities. There’s her cameraman, Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), who never gets to do anything more interesting than react foolishly around the Turtles, because obviously, that’s the only thing cameramen in movies like are good for. And then there’s O’Neil’s superior, played by, of all people, Whoopi Goldberg. What she got out of making an appearance in this film, apart from a paycheck, is something I can’t begin to comprehend.
As for the plot, of course it involves the Foot Clan and the Clan’s leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), but it really seemed as if they were included out of obligation to a franchise than as a way to propel the plot. There’s also the evil CEO of a chemical company (William Fichtner) and his connection to O’Neil’s dead father, which I naturally won’t reveal. And then there’s the secret of the Turtles themselves, and again, I won’t reveal it. Not that it matters. Any potential audience of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will only be interested in the action, including a rather extended alpine descent and a showdown atop a New York City radio tower, and the special effects. I might have felt the same way had the title characters been the stars of their own movie.