Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (from here on, TMNT) is probably the most inoffensive bad summer movie of 2014: right about as forgettable as both G.I. Joe movies, coming up far short of your standard Marvel offering, but not as transcendently awful as something like Transformers: Age of Extinction. (Speaking of that last movie, much of TMNT’s hype surrounds Transformers-director Michael Bay’s credit as the film’s producer.)
And maybe “anti-hype” is more accurate; the fourth Transformers film was by all accounts a bloated mess that managed to make Transformers, explosions, and even dinosaurs a plodding, joyless, fun-less enterprise. (The ability to un-fun Transformers makes Bay sound like the villain of a Saturday morning cartoon.)
So I’m happyish to report that TMNT’s best quality is the way it doesn’t reflect the worst excesses of post-2007 Michael Bay—damning by faint praise, maybe, but this summer, I’m willing to take what I can get.
The plot of the film isn’t worth your time or mine, and I’m not gonna make much reference to the plot through the rest of this piece, so I’ll let the film summarize itself: “We’re ninjas,” says one of the turtles. “Also we’re mutants. We’re turtles. Oh, yeah—and we’re teenagers.” Megan Fox “stars” (read: “fails to star”) as April O’Neil, the once-owner of the titular terrapins, who’s thrust into a whole host of intrigue after accidentally revealing the full-grown turtles’ existence to their mortal enemy, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune).
Ultimately, the movie ends up having almost no characters, just Plot Activation Devices. Megan Fox’s character has absolutely no arc within the film, but instead just comes across a parade of unusual (which is to say, CGI) events and sits still-faced in response. Fox is so entirely devoid of charm that the movie’is dead on arrival, in terms of fun; with the audience totally unable to relate to the wooden plank presented as our straight man, all we’re left to do is take in the sights and maybe chuckle some. Even Will Arnett, an actor this reviewer was super prepared to let off the hook, is clearly phoning it in.
However—and this is where TMNT diverges from its fellow bad summer movies—none of these things manage to really start to bother you, because the movie wraps up after a pretty brisk 90 minutes. Kyle Buchanan over at Vulture already did a great job summing up why 90 minutes is a great length for stupid movies, using TMNT as his anchor, so all I can do is wholeheartedly agree. There’s something about the intellectual violence of a really dumb movie that’s manageable at 90 minutes, but not at 100—even good movies can suffer from this kind of exhaustion, if they’re not careful.
But, more importantly: TMNT is another in a long line of movies that are doing this whole Nostalgia Cash Grab thing.
Take for instance the Transformers flicks, Battleship, an upcoming Spongebob movie, G.I. Joe, and more (it would get real boring real fast to just list them all). It makes sense: rather than having to generate word of mouth based on either director quality and output (as has happened with the upcoming Interstellar) or creating a world full of characters an audience could actually care about (as I wager has happened with Guardians of the Galaxy), a movie is free to do neither of those things (because those things are hard, and hiring people who’re good at those things is expensive), and people will still watch it anyway.