Saturday, August 9, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) - Heroes In A Half-Shell

In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird released a comic through their Mirage Studios label titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT/Turtles/Ninja Turtles). Released with low expectations, the comic ended up becoming a massive mega-hit, leading to a highly successful animated series in 1987 that spawned a massive media juggernaut that continues to this day, which among other things has included a musical production, a plethora of video games, and numerous pizza promotions. Though there have been other iterations of the Turtles on TV over the years, including another animated series in 2003 and a new one that began in 2012, as well as the live action 1997 series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (do not bring this one up to Peter Laird), comics have continued to be published beyond its time with Mirage, including the likes of Archie, Image, Dreamwave and, currently, IDW Publishing. The Ninja Turtles are no stranger to movies either, as they have had a live-action film in 1990 that was followed up by two sequels (II: The Secret of the Ooze and III, the latter of which has been mistakenly referred to as Turtles in Time), a separate CG animated feature in 2007 called TMNT and a new one this year, simply named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the subject of this review.

As a bit of a disclosure, my personal interest in the Ninja Turtles brand began not with any of the cartoon series’, though I have been aware of them, but with the IDW comic series in 2011, which has heavy involvement from Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. When I heard about this comic I became mildly curious about it, since at the time I was hearing a lot about the TMNT franchise in general. So when I saw the first issue of the IDW comic on the rack at my local comic shop, I decided to pick it up, managing to get covers A through D in the process since they go together, just to so I could see what all the fuss was about. To this day, I have yet to regret this decision. While the series also has a handful of mini-series tying into it in addition to one or two Annuals, it is actually a very well-written series that I would not only recommend to existing Turtles fans, but also to newcomers (like me) as an excellent jumping-on point; there’s another TMNT comic from IDW based on the 2012 cartoon from Nickelodeon, but I have not read it since I haven’t been watching the show. In any case, it is because of the IDW comic that I have grown somewhat interested in Ninja Turtles lore, and though I have become mildly curious about past cartoon series due to the positive feedback that I have heard about it and have since read and enjoyed a reprint from Comic-Con of the first issue of the original Mirage comic, I have decided to finally branch off into other parts of the franchise starting with the new movie, directed by Jonathan Liebesman. After seeing a free 3D screening of it at Paramount Pictures, I found myself actually enjoying it.

If you haven't already, go read this. (Pictured: IDW comic #1, Covers A-D combined.)

In New York, a mysterious group known as the Foot Clan has been causing a lot of trouble, making it a common news item. April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is a reporter for one such news station, Channel 6, though she tries to do what it takes to dig deeper into the case. One night while walking around, after reporting what she considered an underwhelming news story that day, April happens upon the Foot Clan committing a robbery and decides to try and get a closer look. As she tries to gather evidence, a mysterious group takes down the Foot, though she believes to have only seen one. In the end, the best evidence she can gather is a picture of a set of Japanese Kanji on the side of a shipping container; when April attempts to relay this experience later that night to her roommate and the next day to others at Channel 6, including her boss Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg), they all think she’s crazy. Later, when driving around with co-worker Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) in a news van, April sees people running from the subway and goes to check it out. It turns out to be the Foot, led by Karai (Minae Noji), taking people hostage. When April tries to sneak a photo, she is spotted by the Foot and about to be shot, only for the mysterious strangers from before to emerge from a passing subway train and rescue the hostages. Not long after, April hears the group talking amongst themselves on a rooftop, climbing up the fire escape and taking a picture, causing them to take action and their appearance causing her to faint. When she comes to, the group of four, Leonardo (Pete Ploszek for mo-cap, Johnny Knoxville for voice), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), introduce themselves to her as being “teenagers”, “mutants”, “ninjas”, and “turtles”, letting her go after erasing her evidence so long as she promises not to tell anyone.

April O'Neil (Megan Fox) meeting the Turtles for the first time (Leonardo pictured).

The story, while not perfect, is actually pretty well-written and does a good job with the Turtles’ origin story and the handling of familiar characters. Having read the IDW comics released so far, the backstory of the Turtles made me think of said comic, as well as how April O’Neil relates to them. The personalities of each Ninja Turtle are also very distinct and stay true to previous incarnations, as with characters such as Splinter (Danny Woodburn for mo-cap, Tony Shalhoub for voice). Aside from the lone instance of crude humor in the entire film (a single fart joke), the movie has a great sense of humor that helps keep the story from taking itself too seriously. Some of the jokes are small cultural references, but they are worked in such that they feel natural and add to the humor value without detracting from the experience. When it comes to important plot points, the movie doesn’t go out of its way to hammer them into your head; rather they feel natural and come up in such a way that they make sense. The story admittedly has a few minor issues though, but it is rather enjoyable anyway.

The acting is another positive, which aids the quality of the storytelling. Megan Fox does a pretty good job portraying April O’Neil and the voice actors for each of the Turtles and Splinter really sell their respective personalities. William Fichtner plays the human character Eric Sacks well (no spoilers) and Will Arnett does a good job portraying April’s co-worker Vernon Fenwick without taking away from the experience. It is a little odd that, of the five mutants present in the movie, Leonardo and Splinter are the only ones whose motion capture and voice actors are different, but this fact didn’t really bother me.

The special effects are pulled off rather spectacularly, with the Turtles and Splinter worked seamlessly into the movie, as if they had a physical presence rather than being obvious CG effects (the mo-cap work from the actors probably helps). This goes hand-in-hand with the action sequences, which are excellently framed and provide a good amount of thrills. A stand-out example is a sequence shown in the trailers where the Turtles have a battle with the Foot while sliding down a snow bank, which flows really well and has a good amount of creativity put into it. I also liked the effects applied to Shredder’s armor in this version of the story, though without giving it away there is one rather creative addition that has not been seen in previous iterations (from what I have seen).

Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) as he appears in the movie.
(Splinter is in the foreground.)

The music, composed by Brian Tyler (ex. Transformers: Prime, Thor: The Dark World, John Dies at the End), helps give the movie some amount of depth as it knows how to set the tone of a scene without becoming intrusive, something Tyler has shown he knows how to do well. There is also an original song in the movie called Shell Shocked by Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, and Juicy J feat. Kill the Noise and Madsonik, which, while not exactly anything to write home about, does admittedly kind of grow on you after a few listens. There’s also a rather hilarious use of a familiar song by The Turtles (see what they did there?), but I don’t want to ruin the context for anyone that hasn’t seen the movie yet.

While not perfect, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) is a good representation of TMNT lore and an all-around fun movie to watch. The story and acting are good, the action is amazing, and the humor gives the whole thing a more light-hearted tone (in a good way). Fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in any capacity should give this movie a try, though it also proves a worthy jumping-on point for newcomers to the franchise (my parents, who also enjoyed this movie, had never had any previous first-hand experience with anything TMNT related). While I wouldn’t do so right away, this is a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing again, and if the inevitable sequel is made from this continuity, I wouldn’t mind seeing that either.