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.)

Image: Industrial Light and Magic / Paramount

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.

Megan Fox in 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'
Image: Paramount

Megan Fox in 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

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.

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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.

Movies that trade in nostalgia—ones that grab your attention by invoking something that used to be very special to you (and legitimately so)—aren’t necessarily a problem, and the argument that these films represent the death of Hollywood’s creativity are pretty unconvincing. Film (and other art) has more in common with cooking than with math: I couldn’t care less if someone else somewhere else has at some point made a lasagna before. All I care about is whether this lasagna is good, fresh, and tasty—or whether I just saw some Applebee’s waiter microwave it back in the kitchen.

Image: Industrial Light and Magic / Paramount

Maybe the best example of loving nostalgia I’ve ever seen was this year’s The Lego Movie, which was filled to the brim with references to old Lego sets most everyone in the Western Hemisphere has played with at some point.

But while that shared context was the movie’s jumping-off point, it wasn’t the film’s sole raison d’être. The movie touched on themes of love, conflict, order vs. chaos, and a whole bunch more—themes, basically, that most adults wrestle with on a daily basis.

Good nostalgia takes something that used to mean a lot to you and makes it mean something to you again—either by updating the themes, like the Lego Movie did, or by taking something familiar and messing with the formula in it.

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Consider the passionate adult fan-base of the weird-amazing show Adventure Time; much of that, in my opinion, stems from the fact that the show manages to feel like what watching TV as a kid felt like. When you’re a kid, everything is weird and strange, simply because you haven’t been alive long enough to have a sense of what’s normal or not—your sample size of the world is just too small.

So it’s all a little off, but even through that, you still pick up on things that seem to make sense—family, friendship, loss, and more. (It’s also why each successive generation of cartoons seems absolutely ridiculous to the generation before it, even though that generation would say that their cartoons were totally normal.)

Adventure Time ramps up that weirdness, and in doing so, disorients even the most formally-adapted TV viewer so much that they’re able to, just for a little while, earnestly enjoy something silly and dumb.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, at its heart, was always about four personalities interacting in ways that were bound to create conflict, tension, friendship, and brotherhood; the fact that these themes were addressed in an all-things-considered pretty infantile and insubstantial sense is beside the point to the fact that they (i.e. the themes) were there at all.

From one vantage point, the TMNT movie, and some of the other nostalgia flicks from this year, is a great way to make an inoffensive quick buck off of people’s memories of their childhood. But if we’ve seen anything in the past months, it’s that another movie could have been made—one that took advantage of the movie’s aged-up audience to further delve into the themes that were always sort of latently present in the cartoon. That we got the former is kind of a bummer.

Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York. He tweets, sometimes, at @jxscott.