Growing up in the nineties, I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the same reasons everyone else did: because they were clever, boy band ninjas who fought evil and ate pizza, and because I was a disgusting kid in America, with nothing else better to do. Sure, the show had its charms. The turtles were cute (as cute as turtles can be – they’re huge carriers of salmonella) and the evil easy to identify. And frankly, if you didn’t like pizza at age eight, you were a loser. But zero percent of this charisma is in Johnathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even though the movie isn’t the complete and total absolute worst, it’s empty and hollow, just another summer comic book blockbuster capitalizing on our endless appetite for nostalgia. It’s been 20+ years, and now Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon has brought the Turtles back to remind us that we’re grown-up teenagers, still hungry for mediocrity and extra cheese.
What Liebesman and Paramount intuitively understand in Turtles is just how much audiences love to consume what they once consumed. “Remember the 90s?!?” someone asks me, at least once a week, and then proceeds to list a long list of crappy things we once loved and consumed: pogs, Smashmouth (sorry Vince), JTT, college. The actual cultural worth of the product is never in question; the fact that we once consumed it gives it automatic value. And the consumer is seen as (pardon my French) all the “quirkier” for remembering and celebrating the slap bracelet, the hammer pant. So when Paramount started releasing whatever trailer after whatever trailer, I can’t tell you how many people – in their thirties, in various states of “employment” – came up to me/went on message boards, to celebrate this “thing they once saw” that they “now get to see – AGAAAAAIIIN!!” Why?
To be fair, there is something about the turtles that’s more powerful than simple nostalgia. The turtles are a quintessential American boy band – there’s Michelangelo, the stoner, Leonardo, the leader, Donatello, the nerd, and Raphael, the team’s fearless bad boy (consider him the Donny Wahlberg of the pack). Splinter, a samurai rat, is the team’s manager, a withholding patriarch who makes up Japanese phrases constantly. We love the turtles for the same reason we “loved” NKOTB or Backstreet – because they’re charismatic, talented teenage boys who are simultaneously attractive and sexless. It’s safe to “like” Michelangelo in the same way it was once safe to like Jordan Knight, Justin Bieber– they’re handsome guys, seemingly virginal, apparently kind, not predators. Not yet.
And for those of us who aren’t sexually attracted to boy-men turtles (that should be all of us), there are other dynamics at play. The turtle pack is fiercely loyal to each other and their father in a fantastical “band of brothers” kind of way. Anyone who’s ever experienced adolescence knows that childhood is a slaughterhouse; teenagers ruthless cannibals in an endless battlefield of death (sorry). So when we see Donatello extend a helping hand to Raphael, or when we watch Michelangelo race to save his father, our hearts can’t help but melt at their baseline compassion. The turtles are better versions of ourselves. Masculine, empathetic. Butch lesbians in a half-shell.
Not to worry, though, whatever’s compelling about Donatello and Raphael is quickly destroyed about ten minutes in. At the start of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NYC is under attack by Shredder and his pack of ruthless criminals. In comes April O’Neil (played to basic bitch perfection by Megan Fox), a soft news reporter in search of some hard news journalism. April is really sad that she graduated from journalism school only to report on pilates – which, cry me a river April, I know a ton of people who graduated from journalism school, and 10 out of 10 of them don’t have a future. Still, April works hard to pick up a story, and in the process discovers “The Ninja Turtles,” turtles from the underground risen to fight crime/battle evil. At her side is Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), her sarcastic, Michael Bay predatory, coworker, dead set on getting into her pants. To the film’s I guess credit, April doesn’t fall for him or the turtles, but instead focuses on her career, an almost victory in a whatever universe where these things count as I guess credits.
As the film progresses, we learn that April once saved the turtles when they were wee tadpoles in her father’s lab. Eric Sacks (William Fitchner), her father’s lab partner, is now dead set on scoring the turtle’s mutant blood, so he can set loose a plague and sell their blood as antidote. It’s always interesting to me when Michael Bay produces a movie where the villain could be easily played by Michael Bay, a greedy megalomaniac dead set on becoming – shockingly – even worse. Sacks traces the turtles down using tEcHnoLogY, and from here on out whatever story the story had is quickly lost in meandering action sequences and product placement. “This movie would make a GREAT video game,” the twelve-year-old sitting next to me told me (we are not friends), followed by “I also want to drink Crush soda!” and “Splinter is so right – Pizza Hut is the best pizza!” Poor child. Never had a Stouffers.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could be worse, which – in a summer of Transformers and Behaving Badly – says nothing. To the writers’ credit, Turtles follows the basic laws of motion, cause and effect, simple plot. Will Arnett is hilarious as Fenwick, and the turtles do have some charismatic moments and bits of dialogue (though none worth reprinting). There is a legitimately entertaining sequence where the turtles beatbox in an elevator, and an almost thrilling one where they slide down a mountain. The turtles are “brahs” (their words, not mine), and they try hard in the way their producers just didn’t.