TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES Turn Thirty

TMNT POSTERThe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren’t teenagers any more. They turn thirty this year. The first issue of the comic book parody by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird appeared in May of 1984. Today, a pristine edition of that debut comic has an estimated value of $4000 to $15,000, depending on which website you believe. Little did anyone suspect back then that the “Heroes in a Half Shell” would become the merchandising mammoth that it is today. TMNT has spawned three animated TV series (one is still going on Nickelodeon, see Kelly Hu: Beverly Hills Black Belt Takes on Karai for TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES by Greg Lynch Jr), an anime series, a live-action TV series, and four feature films. The first film trilogy in the early ‘90s was live-action. The most recent movie was CGI-animated (see TMNT: The Renaissance Reptiles Return by Dr. Craig Reid). And this doesn’t even begin to address the toys, videogames or food tie-ins. But you can read about all of that history elsewhere on the web. What concerns us here is the latest installment from Hollywood’s most bombastic action producer, Michael Bay. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2014 is a major reboot of the franchise, the fifth feature film, which begs the question: will Turtle Power rise again?

Blockbuster reboots are the trend in Hollywood ever since BATMAN BEGINS (2005). Producers want something bankable, and the established “brand name” of a major franchise offers an illusory guarantee. Some notable recent examples include STAR TREK (2009), THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN (2012), MAN OF STEEL (2013), and ROBOCOP (2014). A reboot is a testament to the iconic power of the franchise. Having just directed the fourth TRANSFORMERS installment, which opened just prior to TMNT, Bay is most recognized today for his work with the TRANSFORMERS franchise (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014). Prior to this, he also produced many horror reboots such as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005), and FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009). Bay has an explosive style, meaning a lot of things explode in his movies. His films attract the teenage male demographic, a good fit for the Turtles.

This is a big screen 3D film. From the opening titles, through the labyrinthian sewers of New York City, to sweeping bird’s-eye shots of the tops of skyscrapers, through lots and lots of explosions and on to the end credits, TMNT 2014 make full use of 3D effects on the silver screen. In home theaters, even with a widescreen TV, the figures will be reduced to tiny ants. TMNT's sense of action is absurd. A car and truck chase down a snowy mountain operates on some sort of cartoon physics akin to Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. And the plot? Well, not to spoil it but there’s a villain about to destroy NYC. There are outrageous plot holes and logic flaws, but frankly, if you’re going to TMNT for a great story, you are in the wrong theater. The fundamental concept of teenage ninja mutant turtles is absurd. And the tale of the turtles has been retold already many times. There are no surprises here. Just go with it.

The real question here is: Can this 2014 version capture the spirit of the Turtles? Loyalists might quibble on the liberties taken in this latest iteration, but like STAR TREK and STAR WARS, there have been so many variations and deviations from the canon by now that it’s a nerd’s errand to debate it. The new Turtles are the burliest so far, like hulking CGI steroidal mutants. They are the most intimidating incarnations of the franchise. And yet, as soon as they start bantering, that teenage charm is back. They are funny enough to make it work. In fact, they outshine their cast of human actors considerably. Previously, CGI characters haven’t been as engaging. When the Muppet Yoda from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) is compared with the CGI Yoda in the Episodes 1, 2 & 3, Muppet Yoda is by far the better actor. He’s more palpable, more present. But now, special effects are much more sophisticated, so even behind masks, the turtles deliver decent emotions, more so than some of their human cast. These nuances, if such a word can even be applied to a Michael Bay produced film, may also be lost on the small screen. At the very least, TMNT 2014 is sensitive to updating the Turtles with pop culture references: a nod to Fruit Ninja, cat videos on the web, and arguably the funniest scene, the turtles beat boxing on the way to a fight.

The other characters and storyline become almost superfluous to the comic chemistry of the turtles and the overblown action sequences. Splinter is a greasy rat with a Fu Manchu moustache and goatee. He uses his tail a lot when fighting, which is recursively reminiscent of one of the many TMNT knock-offs, WARRIORS OF VIRTUE (1997). That movie featured Wushu kangaroos. However, it’s worthy to note that it was also live-action. Instead of CGI special effects, real martial artists needed to suit up in furry kangaroo costumes and learn to use their tails for real. Shredder is an amalgam of villains, a villain chimaera. He has the voice of Darth Vader (with a Japanese lilt), the retractable claws of Wolverine, the look of the Silver Samurai, and some spare Transformer parts to accessorize. Ultimately, he’s inconsequential, just a character for the turtles to oppose.

The biggest flaw is Megan Fox, cast as the plucky reporter, April O’Neil. Frankly, Megan is too foxy for April. Her trouty-lips and heaving bosom are distracting and vacuous. While she is good eye-candy for that teenage boy demographic, she’s the main human character and doesn’t carry the role. Even her opening scene, bouncing on a trampoline, fails to titillate.

There are also some missed comedic opportunities with Whoopi Goldberg cast as April’s skeptical editor, and SNL Not-ready-for-primetime-players: Taran Killam as a snarky reporter rival and Abby Elliot as April’s befuddled roommate. Each comedian has some funny lines, but they are more like cameos as all of these characters are swept aside when things start exploding.

The Fight Scenes and the Martial FactorMegan Fox with her turtles: Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek & Jeremy Howard

The fight scenes are a critical factor for readers of KungFuMagazine.com, even if they are computer-generated. Most CGI fight scenes today are motion-captured, or mo-capped, which means they use real stuntmen and martial artists to go through the fights, then digitally convert them to the fantastic images they want. The credited Fight Coordinator is Jonathan Eusebio, Hollywood’s go-to fight choreographer right now with credits such as WOLVERINE (2013), BOURNE LEGACY (2012), THE AVENGERS (2012), NINJA ASSASSIN (2009), and many more. Eusebio has shown a range of styles in his work. For TMNT 2014, the bulk of the choreography is based on “tricking.” Tricking is a popular competitive style prominent at Sport Karate tournaments. It incorporates flamboyant stunt kicks and gymnastic aerial flips, occasionally combined with break-dance moves. Tricking is the object of disdain for traditional martial artists as it has little bearing on actual combat, but for films, particularly an inflated spectacle like a Michael Bay movie, it works really well.

Unfortunately, some martial fundamentals are sacrificed, particularly with the turtles’ arsenal. Leonardo wields two katana (the nito school of Japanese swordsmanship), Michelangelo wields two nunchaku, Raphael uses a pair of sai and Donatello uses a bo staff. Apart from the color of their masks, it’s the easiest way to tell them apart. Any observant martial artist can see flaws in the way the turtles handle their weapons. When Leonardo accepts his katana from Splinter, he grabs the blade with one hand. This is strictly taboo. Not only does this soil the blade, Japanese practitioners have a very strict etiquette on how to pass a sword to another, so it’s a scene that makes authentic sword practitioners wince. Raphael sometimes wields his sai like a push dagger with the rod jutting out between his fingers. That’s another common error, something that a tricker might do, but given that he only has two fingers and a thumb, it’s not worth quibbling. Even more “genuine” martial arts films get some of this stuff wrong.

Despite such misguided martial mutations, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continue to bring their unique form of ninjitsu to American pop culture. Today ninjas are commonplace in America. Right now, American Ninja Warrior and Supah Ninjas are on TV, and there’s an endless stream of Ninja films (most don’t make it theaters, but some do, the most notable was in 2009 half a decade ago: NINJA ASSASSIN). And at this writing, the term “ninja” coughs up nearly 150 threads from a search of our KungFuMagazine.com forum here. But back in 1984, the Ninja Turtles were banner bearers for ninjas, so much so that the ‘80s are thought of as the Ninja Decade in martial arts circles. There were the Ninja films of Sho Kosugi, the American Ninja films (not to be confused with the aforementioned American Ninja Warrior), the exploitive Hong Kong ninja flicks of Godfrey Ho. There was even Ninja cologne. The Heroes in a Half Shell were not only instrumental in bringing ninjas into the American vernacular (to the point that there are blenders bearing the Ninja brand), they also made ninjas kid-friendly. Case and point, Arree Chung just wrote a children’s picture book titled Ninja!.

Ninjas have come a long way from the cold-blooded medieval assassins. It’s ironic that the youth are so taken with the darkest manifestation of the martial art. Perhaps it’s even a little disturbing, a bleak sign of the times. But with thirty years upon their heads now, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello have proven their turtle-staying power and have another shot at the millennial generation. Is another Ninja Decade on the horizon? If so, surely the turtles are leading the march again.

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About Gene Ching :
Find us on facebook Gene Ching is the Associate Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi and KungFuMagazine.com

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