Friday, August 15, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

There are some movies that you expect to be so god awful that when you actually see them, anything remotely palatable comes as a pleasant shock.  We know this.  We have all experienced the phenomenon of our lowest expectations reversing halfway in the wake of something awful, but, well, not entirely.  I'm not saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those occasions - it doesn't carry nearly the 'dread'-weight of something like, say, Transformers - but I am owning up to a possible blast of overcompensating happy-chemicals triggered by my enjoyment of it.  I kinda liked the latest Turtles reboot, guys.  I kinda liked it. Sure, in some sense I'm part of a built-in target market.  TMNT is riding high on a wave of 90s nostalgia, and I'm a kid who grew up proudly wearing my turtle-printed t-shirts to preschool and treasuring the trading cards.  For those of us who loved the friendlier, softer lines of those TV turtles, though, the franchise has been dead for ages.  We've suffered the leaner, meaner animated reboots, the evil-eye redesign, and the bastardization of our beloved mutants.  Our childhoods have been destroyed time and again, so by the time a Michael Bay-produced resurrection rolled around? Let's face it: there was little anyone could do to make things worse.       

If we're being honest, I wasn't even planning on seeing this iteration of the turtles. I was prematurely disappointed that that intangible something of my youth wouldn't/couldn't be duplicated, and exhausted by the idea of watching yet another product of that same ole' Transformers model. With all the talk of the film being slanted more towards the direction of the original comic book, I was sure that the nostalgia factor here wouldn't even be slanted towards "my" iteration of the turtles.  There was a chance that the lighthearted nature of the animated series would be turned towards something far grimmer than the cartoonish personalities of the characters should support; a separate possibility that everything would lean towards the cleanly juvenile. Beyond that, there was a very slim chance that someone might actually be able to pick up the gauntlet and use the raw pop culture of the turtles to speak to the cliches and absurdities of the action film.

This Ninja Turtles doesn't quite get there, but it's at least in possession of some self-awareness.  Everything about the concept is, as always, absurd.  Here we find the mythology adjusted just slightly to up the role of April O'Neil (Megan Fox).  Where April is always buddy-buddy with the turtles, here she's also something of their lord and savior.  We meet her as a struggling reporter for the Channel 6 News who's been assigned to a string of embarrassing puff pieces. She's unhappy, and desperately trying to get a new angle on the Foot Clan attacks plaguing New York.  Convinced that vigilantes are fighting back, April forces herself into the action and finds herself on a rooftop with a group of steroid pumped, oversized turtles.  She catches the name of one, and suddenly she's sailing away on a crazy trip down memory lane: realizing the mutations she's just met are the very same "pets" she looked after in her dead father's laboratory.    
It's this sort of ridiculous plot convenience that you just have to accept, and the film makes it clear that it recognizes its own absurdity.  As April runs home to prove her theory to herself, she locates all the evidence she needs in a box in her bedroom closet.  She looks up, frantic, and tells her clueless roommate her theory:  the vigilantes fighting a clan of ninjas are the Renaissance-painter-named box turtles of her youth!  The roommate's frowning response is one many critics seem to share, and the heightened improbability of the scene speaks to the film as a whole. There it is. That's what you're watching. If you can't get behind the impossible possibility that April would piece this together automatically, that she would have this box, how can you possibly get behind the entire concept of teenage mutant ninja turtles? Pizza eating, talking, skateboarding, martial arts-trained, weapon wielding turtles?  What do you want?  What are you asking for when you ask for this narrative to adhere to realism? What questions do you want answered? What would imbue this story with something extra? What's the damn point?  

Here's the deal: there's a fair amount this version of the Ninja Turtles gets right.  While the plot doesn't offer anything new, it at least manages to keep the characters clearly delineated and the action pieces functional as more than twisted metal.  Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo act convincingly like hyperactive 16-year olds, and though we don't get to spend enough time getting to know them, we understand something of their differences, their dynamic, and they're likable enough to lend a too-long chase scene something rather sweet. All the noise and product placement doesn't change the fact that it's not a bad twist on a Saturday morning stand-by, and one that it doesn't pander overtly to the youngest members of its audience.  The Turtles manage to be goofy without succumbing wholly to slapstick, and the line of illogic was clear.  It may not be the best piece of cinema, but it's far from the worst film of the summer, folks, and it certainly doesn't fail in what it sets out to do.

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