Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Actually Does April and the Turtles Justice
Starring Megan Fox, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, Will Arnett
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
There is no doubt that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a summer blockbuster in all of the usual ways; there are ample explosions, absurd action sequences, and stunning special effects. But it is also a Ninja Turtles movie, and someone responsible for making this film what it was took that to heart.
Throughout most of this film’s development, I was among the droves of TMNT fans ready to hate this movie. It was being produced by Michael Bay. The turtles looked disgusting. I doubted the choice of Megan Fox as April O’Neil. But as time passed this new arm of the franchise slowly started to win me over. It was clear from the trailers and the TV spots and the behind the scenes that the team making this movie got it. They got the Ninja Turtles. The relationships of the brothers was there, and it was real. It was palpable in the in the tension between Leonardo and Raphael, and in the quibbling between Donatello and Michelangelo. I expected to watch this film, and to revel in those relationships, and those moments. What I did not expect was to be impressed by was this film’s interpretation of April O’Neil.
The way the filmmakers portray April O’Neil is not without flaws. She is sexualised, she gets tossed around like a rag doll, and at least half of her dialog is bookended with screams. However, unlike many other April incarnations, Megan Fox as April O’Neil is not strictly a damsel in distress. Instead, she is a catalyst for many of the major events in this film. She is goal oriented, and dedicated, and empathetic. Above all, she has integrity; not only proving true to the turtles, but to herself. This April isn’t just in it for the scoop. While she does harbor a desire to be taken more seriously by her journalist peers, her solution isn’t to make the evening news by selling the turtles out (I’m looking at you, whatever writer “developed” plucky reporter ex-girlfriend from Godzilla 1998). This April wants to make a difference, and when she does, it is not met with fanfare or even a promotion at Channel Six News. The fact that she was there when the Turtles and New York City needed her is enough.
So many interpretations of April O’Neil have sought to make April a “strong female character”. This is usually accomplished by outfitting her in some flagrant interpretation of ninja garb, or putting her under the tutelage of Master Splinter to learn the art of ninjitsu. These interpretations are often only strong in the literal sense, leaving April by the wayside as a two-dimensional character in a franchise that is nothing if not character driven. This April O’Neil is flawed, but she is also strong. Not because she is given weapons, or trained to follow in the turtles’ footsteps, but because of her convictions. Also, she has a female roommate, who she has a frenetic chat with, and I’m pretty sure that makes this film the first Ninja Turtles movie ever made to pass the Bechdel test. She also exchanges dialog with Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Bernadette Thompson, and gets yelled at by Minae Noji’s Karai; suffice to say, we’re on a roll with this April.
The film is certainly not without its faults. The most glaring of which is likely William Fichter’s Eric Sacks. The only saving grace for Eric Sacks is that he is not the Shredder; the Shredder is his own character entirely, but he takes the backseat to Sack’s schemes. Why we could not have had an Oroku Saki that encompassed what they intended for Sacks as an apt and calculating business man, who was also the Shredder, is simply a testament to HoIlywood’s incessant whitewashing. To make matters worse, Sacks’ dialog is truly terrible, and Fichter’s delivery is about as flat as a pancake. Thankfully, it was obvious that every other actor on set threw themselves into their characters. Oddly enough, I was particularly impressed by Megan Fox, who delivered ridiculous lines with just the right level of deadpan to let the audience know that April O’Neil is fully aware of how insane she must sound going on about six-foot tall vigilante turtles that “do karate”.
There were plot deficiencies, and impossible physics, and poorly conceived lines of dialog. But there was also Leonardo, leading without being overbearing. There was Raphael, big and brooding and still able to poke fun at himself. There was Donatello, stammering and sniffing, all while kicking butt at being a hacker and on the battlefield. And of course, there was Michelangelo, who was just the right amount of obnoxious. Master Splinter even gets to duke it out with the Shredder, and it is no less epic than Master Yoda taking on Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: Episode III (yeah, I went there). The conflict was not particularly inspired, but that was of little consequence. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is rarely about the conflict itself. It is about how the relationships between the turtles, and the people in their lives, are affected by whatever that conflict may be. This film captures that beautifully with humor and heart. So if you like the Ninja Turtles for the characters they are, you may just like this movie.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a summer blockbuster, but more importantly, it is a Ninja Turtles movie. It is flawed, but it is also funny, and tender, and character driven. And in that way, it was all I was hoping it would be.