The absolute greatest popular art is that that captures the spirit of childhood – movies like Up and Toy Story 3 literally bring tears to my eyes, and, for someone as cynical and pessimistic as I am, it’s amazing how any Muppets encounter manages to fill me with joy for days. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise is exactly in that vein – there’s nothing more childish than a bunch of, well, teenage mutant ninja turtles – so it was a no-brainer for me to fly up to Madison, WI this weekend (apologies for the late post…) to watch it with a friend of mine who feels the same way.
From a Ninja Turtles perspective, the movie was actually pretty OK. The Turtles had noses for some reason, and were a little too modern, perhaps – over six feet tall and crazy jacked, and they said “brah” instead of “dude” and sported long, torn masks and holsters for their weapons – but all-in-all it reminded me that I love the Ninja Turtles, and for every scene in which I wondered why Donatello’s voice was so high or Raphael was sporting a do-rag, there was a scene that made me happy because of how childishly stupid it was (I’m looking at you, DJ Mikey).
But purely from a good film perspective, the 2014 TMNT movie was, well, relatively atrocious. I’m not suggesting that the TMNT movie – or any TMNT movie for that matter; some of my favorite TMNT movies growing up were poorly made – should be made particularly well. (Seriously, the scene where Vanilla Ice just breaks into “Turtle Rap” while the fearsome foursome busts the foot clan inside an early ‘90s NYC club is among the greatest scenes ever filmed, in this blogger’s humble opinion.) And I’m not talking about the bigger, badder version of Turtles we got in this movie – sure, give Shredder a blade-gun with infinite ammo and make the Foot Clan a paramilitary terrorist organization for some reason. I’m talking in terms of just, like, the very basics of storytelling, the Heroes on the Half Shell deserve more than what they got in this case.
It starts at the very beginning – a shaky cam following reporter April O’Neil as she tries to get information through a tough, no-nonsense interview with the victim of a Foot Clan attack! Man, we must be watching the news as her cameraman hurries to follow her as she runs after her quarry, hot on the trail of an elusive gang of bandits! Wrong. Pan to her cameraman, leaning against the news van, camera clearly packed way. No more shaky cam for the rest of the film, no further mention of it. The only possible explanation is they cut the scene where he has the camera out, and they just never edited out or re-shot the shaky cam bit. That’s shoddy filmmaking.
Then you have the blatant storytelling flaws that I like to think even a child could pick up on – a mention of “first day of spring in NYC!” leading to a cringe-worthy “…looks like April came early this year” line, inexplicably delivered on a mountain inexplicably covered in a thick winter’s snow further-inexplicably connected by inexplicable sewer with NYC.
This is a basic storytelling problem – if you are married to the idea of the snowy mountain so you can have a crazy snowy-mountain-sledding fight scene, set the movie in the winter. If you’re (for some ridiculous reason) married to the “April came early this year” pun, set it in January or February instead of December. But don’t point out how warm it is and how everyone is wearing tee shirts, then move ten miles and have a blizzard avalanche scene. It’s not hard, guys.
It doesn’t get any better – the Turtles (except Raph) get locked up in cells (inexplicably they are kept awake for this) and their blood drained in order to extract precious mutagen (formerly ooze – come on guys, let’s stick to canon here), and three Turtles have three tubes coming out of them leading to a blood… tank… thing… with four tubes of blood running in. Again, not hard to catch this error; you can even fix it in post (as I’m led to believe all film-makers are running around saying all of the time).
And this is not to mention the rest of the hilarious mutagen problems – they need anyone who has the mutagen flowing through their veins, so they capture mutagen-enhanced rat Master Splinter… then punch / stab him really hard in the gut and take the turtles instead, leaving Splinter to die. The Turtles decide they need to get the mutagen so they can give it to Splinter to save him, despite the fact that it is obviously already in his body coursing through his veins also. The bad guys also have spent 15 years trying to recreate the mutagen to no avail without knowing the Turtles are out there, but they just happen to have this contraption set up and ready to go that can separate regular blood from mutagen, and they have the pathogen that the mutagen can cure just loaded up and ready for dispersal at a moment’s notice from the top of a NYC skyscraper.
Then there’s the hilarious scene where they get their blood drained (besides the “fix it in post” problem) – which involves a blood-deficient and clearly weakened Donatello telling a panicking April that the only thing that can give them the energy to break out of their confinement is adrenaline – good thing there’s an enormous adrenaline button that takes up a quarter of conveniently-placed computer console monitoring their life signs! Of course, their first priority is to save Raphael, who’s busy getting his face ground into the dirt by Shredder, who is “gonna kill him!” But as soon as they break out of their blood-draining prisons, Shredder’s gone to catch up to the evil mastermind behind the whole plan, who’s on his helicopter on the way into New York to disperse aforementioned inexplicably-ready-to-go poison. I won’t even mention that, upon coming down from their adrenaline high, the Turtles have no further blood-loss related problems, except oh wait, I just did.
Then there’s the final battle, which occurs almost immediately after this – we see the helicopter of the Big Bad approaching the dispersal tower in NYC, and Shredder at the top of the tower… except wait, didn’t Shredder leave after him – how did he get there first? The Turtles battle it out on top of the tower, including a touching moment in which they have to hold up the entire spire so that the poison doesn’t fall off and disperse itself, killing “everyone in a 10-block radius.” Not seconds later, the spire falls off the tower, no problem, because some other problem came up, so that one’s no longer important and can be ignored.
The sad thing about this is that most of this would have been fixed with like an hour more of script writing and ten more minutes of film – you can even keep the snowy mountain in springtime. The big bad gets the blood, but he needs time to separate out the mutagen and prepare his diabolical plan. The Turtles escape and travel the long distance back to NYC to lick their wounds, develop their characters, and nurse an ailing Splinter who clearly isn’t going to make it – insert mystical reason he needs the mutagen here. Then, after a day, a week, a month, a season, April gets wind that something is going on at Big Bad’s tower that night – there’s a gala perhaps, whatever — and she’s suspicious of his motives, so she checks it out. She alerts the Turtles, they recognize the immediacy of the situation and the opportunity to get the mutagen to save Splinter (¡¿and maybe they have to rescue damsel in distress April O’Neil?!) and the final fight scene happens exactly as it did in the movie.
I’m not asking for a masterpiece here – all I’m asking is that the Turtles be given a standard, boilerplate movie plot that’s executed well. It’s not the movie treatment they need; it’s the movie treatment they deserve.