THE SENTIMENT was clear among dudes in vintage green graphic T-shirts emerging from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles screening on Wednesday night: harrumphing disappointment.
"Piece of shit," was uttered more than once. Heads shook somberly. A young woman in a skimpy, Turtle-themed cocktail dress seemed downtrodden.
Which, frankly, surprised me. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot is not good, per se, but it's no piece of shit, either. And it's certainly no worse than the embarrassing cash-ins that have been carried out under the TMNT banner since the world's most fearsome fighting team emerged from the sewers three decades ago.
This one, at least, had a budget.
The disappointment of the fans on Wednesday night seemed to imply unforgivable transgressions, and it's true these are not ninja turtles we have seen before.
Most notably askew: their stature. The heroes of the 1987 cartoon series were diminutive—shorter, by several feet, than friendly and adventurous news reporting sidekick/worldly mentor/distressed damsel April O'Neil. Normally proportioned adults played the Turtles in the original trio of live-action movies. These new Turtles are monstrous—CGI mountains who've not only been gifted speech and humanoid form, but also have super strength and shells that deflect bullets. It's the most superhero these superheroes have ever been.
Arch-nemesis Shredder gets the same treatment. He's a badass evil samurai from the old country, of course, capable of fucking up an armed assailant with this hands literally tied behind his back. (These are prerequisites for any successful Shredder.) But for some reason—the aversion to subtlety of the latter-day blockbuster, probably—our new Shredder is a chromed-out, flightless Iron Man who shoots knives instead of missiles.
So the new film has differences—differences that I, as someone who once avidly collected trading cards from the original Turtles movie, was prepared to be reviled by.
Then I revisited the canon—and anyone who revisits the canon knows there can be no new transgressions in the turtle universe. Any standards set by the 1987 cartoon that led to America's love affair with Mikey (party dude), Raph (cool, but rude), Leo (leads), and Donny (does machines) had all been thoroughly, tackily transgressed by the mid-'90s, after three progressively worse films, a stadium musical tour ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells"), and a Christmas special (We Wish You a Turtle Christmas).
The new film is uneven, but at least it has menace, with a sort-of-nonsensical plot in which a rich magnate tries to get richer by poisoning thousands of New Yorkers. The villainous Foot Clan of the first film was made up of wayward teens stealing VCRs from pensioners; the new Foot is militant, capable, and gun toting. And the four brothers' interactions are spot-on: They're the wisecracking, youthful group they've always been (a moment when the Turtles are riding an elevator up to certain peril and break into an improvised beatbox routine is especially good), and the movie explores their origins and training more fully than most other iterations.
Megan Fox, as April O'Neil, is all Megan Fox-y, Will Arnett, as a TV news cameraman, brings humor to his scant scenes, and Whoopi Goldberg's in the house, for some reason.
All of which is to say I largely part company with those grumblers at the theater (even as I'm jealous of their kelly-green Turtle shirts). As films go, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is no prize—but it doesn't really have to be. It only has to stand up to the rest of the Turtles universe.
Then again, there was not one allusion to Krang, the anthropomorphic, neuro-tentacled, squawking brain who will always be the most compelling and evil Turtles villain!
Piece of shit.