Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review: An NYC Tale That Needs More NYC

Reboots of cartoon classics are just a fact of life now. Each time they hit theaters, you hope and pray they'll do justice to your childhood memories. More often than not, they leave you disappointed. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is sadly no exception, and it doesn't take advantage of the one thing that could have saved it.

Here's the uncomplicated premise; you've probably already guessed it if you're even glancingly familiar with the original cartoon or comic books. Bad guy Shredder and his Foot Clan minions have a plan to take over New York City, with the police and politicians at their beck and call. The only ones willing and able to stand up to the menace are a band of good guy mutant turtles who happen to be teens and have a penchant for pizza. At the urging of their rat-cum-sensei Splinter, the adolescent reptiles have been lurking in the sewer, studying karate and skateboarding while NYC unravels above them.

Splinter keeps them sewer-bound until intrepid young reporter April O'Neil enters the picture. Actually in this version of the Turtles, April is not only a reporter; in her youth, she saved the turtles when they were simply a science project created at the hand of her late scientist good-guy dad, who by the way was killed at the hand of Shredder's master Mr. Sacks. Layers! Feelings! Debts! The turtles feel honor-bound to protect April and, in turn, the Big Apple they call home. You can probably take it from there.

While the 2014 vision of TMNT is entertaining—I laughed and gave into the dumb jokes, and they are all dumb—it has its share of missed opportunities.

Let's go over some of the things the movie gets right first:

  • The Turtles stay true to their 1987 stereotypes: Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines. Rafael's cool but rude, and Michelangelo is a party dude, check.
  • The weaponry is also consistent; Leonardo has katanas, Donatello has a staff, Raphael has sais, and Michelangelo has nunchucks.
  • Shredder's suit: Like the original had sex with one of those dinosaur Transformers. Sure!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review: An NYC Tale That Needs More NYC

  • April's basic details: She's a hot TV reporter who owns a lot of yellow jackets:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review: An NYC Tale That Needs More NYC

  • The Turtles' lair: a sewer dojo fit for teens.
  • Jargon: Lines like "heroes in a half shell" and "turtle power" make cameos.

There we go, the framework is there! But it also got some things super wrong:

  • New York City: The turtles are denizens of New York City, protecting New York City. But the dialogue plays like they've never been here. For example, they lump Brooklyn together as one piece, (April, what were you doing at the Brooklyn docks?). We're suspending enough disbelief already, Bay!
  • New York City Pizza: No one from New York City—reptile or otherwise—orders pizza from Pizza Hut. I know it was very clear product placement that the turtles did in this movie, but it's also blasphemy. Why not slap "Ray's" on a box? That's believable. [Ed. note: I have ordered Papa John's in Manhattan more than once and have no regrets. -BB]
  • April: She's supposed to be a smart but hot chick who keeps these party dude turtles on their toes. The hot part is there, but... welp. Sidenote: Megan Fox and Will Arnett spoke to the audience at the beginning of the screening I attended and she tried to get the audience to participate in a "I say Ninja you say turtles" chant, and no one really took the bait.
  • Channel 6: April looks like a fool in front of her news station bosses when she explains the madness afoot in NYC, but she chooses to keep her turtle friends a secret over getting her story. So she's never vindicated! Womp womp.
  • Juicy J is no Vanilla Ice.
  • I'm sorry, but the turtles looked like weird green dicks. Dicks that stand at 6'5" on screen and fight with swords and nunchucks. Somebody had to say it. Let that somebody be me.

You have teenage + mutant + ninja + turtles. They love pizza, they live in a sewer dojo, their sensei is a mutant rat. It's genius! That should be pretty hard to screw up. But this just never quite comes together into something enjoyable.

What could have helped more than anything was a little more New York City. The turtles were born and bred and mutated right here in late 80s gritty, dirty NYC. And they lived in the sewers, meaning they knew this place, neighborhood by neighborhood, like the backs of their shells. The other day I went looking back at old episodes of the original serieson YouTube; the very first one I pulled up opens with Donatello in South Street Seaport. What this movie needed more than anything was a healthy dose of grit, of authenticity, something to balance out the silliness and give it some actual stakes. A more convincing New York could have provided all of that.

It's still easy to like the turtles and their dumb jokes and their turtle personalities. It's just everyone else (the humans) sucks. There's no one here you really care about.

TMNT is less terrible than you might think, and certainly than the trailers indicated. I mean, I enjoyed myself. But it's not a summer blockbuster, nor is it the revival of your childhood memories you'd probably hoped for. That would have taken a whole lot more pizza—preferably New York-style.