Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and the Disappointment of Nostalgia

Okay, I have a confession to make. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a small (which is to say, enormous) obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I saw all of the films, and I even went to the third one in theaters and enjoyed it (and if you’ve ever seen that film, you know how big of a deal that is). I watched the cartoon series religiously on Saturday mornings, and I spent enormous amounts of my Parents’ money on collecting the plethora of action figures that glutted the market. Then, sometime around 1995, I sort of fell out of love with them. I didn’t move into hatred or active dislike; I just didn’t watch them anymore.

Since then, I’ve seen several iterations of everyone’s favourite mutants make the rounds of popular culture. Up until now, I’ve managed to not see any of them, but I finally gave in and decided to watch the first film of the newly-rebooted series. The series is basically an origin story and includes all of the requisite characters:  Splinter, the four turtles named after Renaissance, April, and of course the Shredder. I’ll spare you the plot, mostly because it falls pretty squarely into many of the other origin stories laid out in earlier iterations.

The first half of the film is, perhaps unsurprisingly, utterly ridiculous in both conception and execution. Somehow, April manages to forget that she was intimately involved in the creation of the turtles, as she was always at her father’s lab during their creation. And, of course, somehow Eric Sachs, one of the film’s two villains, has been corrupted and led astray by the Shredder. So many things happen in the first half, but so few of them make any sense, and while this can be overlooked in some films, here it is definitely a significant flaw (among many others).

Fortunately, the latter half of the film largely dispenses with the narrative and just gives in to the spectacle and the action. Now, I know that this is not every critic’s cup of tea, but if you accept that part of the purpose of the action cinema is to inspire in the spectator a feeling of bodily control and power (Richard Dyer has a fascinating essay on this subject), it becomes much easier to give in and have fun along with the characters. Whatever the film’s other significant flaws, its cinematography in the action sequences is fluid and delightful.

The greatest tragedy of the film, however, is that the characters that should be its center are annoying (Michelangelo) or largely forgettable (Leonardo and Donatello). The exception is Raphael, who actually gets a bit of character development; indeed, I think the film would have succeeded more had it focused on his own journey from disaffected and alienated brother to part of a team. The film gestures toward this, but it really doesn’t have the narrative complexity or skill to be able to pull off this particular storyline with any grace or thoroughness.

On a larger level, I’m not entirely sure that the spirit that originally motivated the films and TV series of an earlier decade can really be translated into the present. Given that one of the producers of this film was Michael Bay, it’s no surprise that subtlety went right out the window, but even I was a little blown away by the too-muchness of Shredder’s mechanized armour and the hulking muscularity of the superheroes (to say nothing of the truly bizarre and not-very-good CGIed Splinter). Of course, the Turtles were never known for their subtlety or their nuance, but at least there was something joyous about their antics and their humour. This film, however, gives in to all of the basest impulses of its presumed adolescent audiences (including the obligatory flatulence joke), though these always seem to fall flat.

My final evaluation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? A complete and thorough….eh. It’s okay, I guess. Or, as I would put it to my students, it’s thoroughly okay. I’m still up in the air about seeing the sequel, though luckily I believe it will be coming to the local dollar theater. I’ll also admit that the fact that Bebop and Rocksteady, along with Krang, will be putting in appearances makes it somewhat more appealing.

I guess the most frustrating thing about the film is that I really wanted to love it, and I just didn’t. Part of that, certainly, is my own nostalgia for the original. An equal part, however, is the failure of the film to succeed either on its own terms or as a throwback to an earlier time. Who knows, maybe the sequel is better.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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