Film Review – TMNT

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Year: 2014

Country: USA

Director: Jonathan Liebesman

Writers: Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec, Evan Daughety

Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fitchner

“Four turtles… one’s fighting a robot samurai. Why not?”

There was once an episode of the 90s smash hit cartoon TMNT in which the villainous Shredder opened up a pizza parlour in an attempted to con his pizza loving enemies the Turtles into his diabolical trap, after which he would turn them into turtle soup. Though the image of the buffoonish ninjitsu master wiping off the residue of blended Mikie, Leo, Raph and Donnie puree from his lips may sound disturbingly dark, it was actually a prime example of just how idiotically daft the much loved cartoon often was.

Which makes it all the more strange just how protectively the now middle aged fans reacted to news of a Michael Bay and co reboot, claiming they would mess it up, or “rape our childhood”.

Reboots of dusty old childhood favourites have seen a boom recently and now guarantee box office success, but the trend continually faces the difficult task of pleasing its many demographics. The target audience is largely comprised of two very different generations: one a group of demanding and cynical army of anxiety riddled 30 year old males; the other a mass of bright eyed youths with few cares or principles.

How is a well meaning corporate film maker supposed to please such a disparate audience?

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As the already angry older generation enter the cinema clinging onto their beer bellies and shattered dreams, seeking a therapeutic re-connection with a more care free era of their lives, it can hardly of escaped them that they will be the secondary consideration. TMNT 2014 is meant to be sold to the new generation – a generation raised on low expectations, and unable to understand the dense subtleties of the Pizza Parlour trick. A few nods and winks have been artificially put in for us oldies but this is not really our film.

Yet no matter how much you go into TMNT with realistic expectations it remains impossible to gloss over certain depressing truths. Like the Transformer films before it TMNT is all crash-bang, lens flare, protracted sub bass noises, and chaotically designed CGI set pieces. It is a film made by the new generation of block buster directors who began their careers as pop music video directors, and as a piece of entertainment it rarely raises itself above the creative levels of a Lady Ga Ga video.

TMNTs story is a criminally cheap copy and paste of all the other superhero mega blockbusters of the moment, mimicking the recent Spiderman reboot beat for beat. A super villain gains hold of a super weapon, innocently developed by scientists connected to the female lead (to conveniently tie an otherwise pointless character into the story), which is then stolen and used to threaten the city. The hero’s, also connected to the scientists, must race against a convenient ticking clock which gives them just enough time to recover from a defeat, learn from their mistakes, and to get closure on some distracting personal issues. Once ready to face the evil boss mano-o-mano, an epic confrontation is set up on the top of the nearest city skyscraper with great views.

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It’s a now painfully old formula and these assembly line identikit films are getting frustrating but audiences willingly lap it up so whats to stop the screen writers from being so lazy?

The script itself is little more than a series of set ups for the more important action scenes, although surprisingly their are one or two funny scenes which channel the classic interplay between the turtles, most notably an elevator break where the brothers improvise some beat box. But these moments are few and far between and only hint at the film which could have been had it focused on the distinctive characters and their juvenile streetwise banter (ie the 1990s film). Whether more action-less scenes like this were cut due to slowing down the galloping plot is not clear but it certainly costs the film its personality. There is also an odd disconnect between the humans and the CGI characters due to a combination of unsubtle directing and poor acting, resulting in some old school interactions where the actors are clearly looking at the wrong target.

The action scenes are fast, messy, and surprisingly fantastical, reaching the levels of supernatural abilities more expected of Superman. Few really stand out as distinctive or memorable, and the centerpiece sequence where the four turtles slide down a mountain develops into levels of absurdity even animations wouldn’t try to get away with.

Taking centre stage far more than the Transformers did in their reboot, the CGI turtles are certainly expensive looking sporting a radical overhaul in appearance but the designers don’t seem to have decided if they are going for an over-the-top cartoon style or a more realistic humanoid look. The simplistic, colourful and eye catching aesthetic of the 80s has truly been cast aside in recent times in favour of complexity and details within details which makes it difficult to make out what you are looking at. Much lower budget films have managed to make CGI aliens and monsters look far more natural and convincing but TMNT struggles, non more so than with rat-man Splinter and his odd jelly like flesh and distinctive lack of rodent features.

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Younger viewers have yet to experience the horror of growing up to see how quickly once ground breaking CGI dates but will soon look back on TMNT and squirm just as many did with the Phantom Meanace.

The cheesy light hearted tone of the 90s cartoons has been totally replaced by the now obligatory atmosphere of dark grittiness which must reign over everything, even when the story isn’t at all dealing with dark or gritty themes. Older fans looking to reconnect with their childhoods will be left confused by the back breaking violence and gratuitous shots of Megan Fox’s arse which mix incongruously with the wacky action scenes and light subject matter. Ironically it is the desensitised and sexualised children who get more kicks from these more adult gimmicks.

In truth the balancing act of modern versus classic  is impossible to win. It only results in a film confused and contradictory in its flow and tone. TMNT doesn’t know what it wants to be and who it is intended to be enjoyed by, but this may not entirely be the fault of the film makers.

Once the genie of desensitisation has been let loose on popular culture it is impossible to go back, and so the more innocent times of the 80s and early 90s have been lost forever. This golden age of innocent wacky fun is impossible to sell to the younger crowds and would no longer be enough for those raised on it.

Even going in to TMNT with this heightened awareness of our own distorted prejudices, our own failings as adults choosing to watch a film about mutated Turtles based on the toys we played with as children, we still wanted to enjoy a care free blast from the past.

But it was not to be. The badly executed CGI, misplaced super hero style action scenes, lack of basic character or interaction in the Turtles, and most of all the utterly lazy and formulaic nature of the adventure means this is one best forgotten.

Let’s all just hope the £300 million remakes of Captain Bucky O’Hare, Mask, and the Centurions manage to figure out the conundrum and entertain us well into our 40s.

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