Whenever they remake a childhood favorite, I always get a bit of a knot in the pit of my stomach. Are they going to make Winnie the Pooh into a rapper? Why do Smurfs have to be edgy? And do you ever remember the original Muppets making a fart joke? With this in mind, I had pretty low expectations of what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was going to be like.
Fortunately, my fears turned out to be unfounded. It was turtle-ly awesome.
There’s a difference between those rude dudes with ’tudes and every aforementioned moment of childhood innocence: The Turtles exist in a complex, self-referential state. It’s sort of an accident of history that the foursome, who were originally created as a parody of “edgy” comics of the 1980s, became a property for children in the first place. Indeed, throughout much of Turtle history there has been a dichotomy: the original comic book Turtles, with their gritty edge, and the softer side of our Teenage “Hero” Turtles.
One thing that’s striking is the characterization of the Turtles themselves. This is the first movie where each gets his own distinct face, rather than just a different-colored mask.
Fanboys have longed for a grittier take on Leo, Raph, Mikey and Don and in this year’s reboot, they’ve clearly gotten it. But is it so gritty that it’s not a kids’ movie anymore?
In a word, no: It’s a true PG-13 film. You probably wouldn’t take your 10-year-old to see it—there’s some cursing and Shredder is pretty scary, even for adults. But the film has a light-hearted core underneath the gritty outer shell that makes it ten times as fun to view with your nephew, little brother or kids.
Batman Begins this ain’t. While it clearly aspires to be a tentpole production, we’re mostly told this specific iteration of the Turtles’ origin story in subtle flashback. The pacing is quick: We go from the mystery of the Turtles, to their first appearance, to Turtles in action, to climactic battle in pretty short order, though nothing feels rushed.
One thing that’s striking is the characterization of the Turtles themselves. This is the first movie where each one gets his own distinct face, rather than just a different-colored mask. However, there’s also deep and loving attention paid to delineating Leonardo as a burdened leader, Raphael as a gruff “lost child,” Mikey as the fun-loving baby and Donatello as the technology wizard. It gives adults who remember growing up with the Turtles some meat on the bone, something to connect with. There’s some depth here, beyond just a stock repetition of “leader,” “party dude,” “nerd” and “cool but rude.” (Or “crude.” Does anyone really know?)
The filmmakers were particularly interested in updating the film to portray the kind of stuff teenagers have today. Whereas in the 1950s, the symbol of youthful independence was the automobile, in 2014, it’s the smartphone. And these turtles skateboard, do graffiti and like dancing to Gwen Stefani songs.
There’s also a real fleshing out of Splinter as both a sensei and a parent. He is given motivation and purpose in this film. Understanding that his adopted children are different, he realizes that he has to make them tough enough to survive in a world where others might hate or fear them. This is why he chooses to train them in the art of ninjutsu, which also provides his own character with a stoic disposition.
What’s more, there’s not a touch of camp in the film, no small feat when making a movie about four teenaged mutant turtles trained in the art of ninjutsu fighting a guy in a super villain costume. Shredder, for his part, looks downright terrifying, one reason you might want to leave the younger kids at home. But for the rest of us, he’s just right.
And, of course, there’s Megan Fox as pretty much the hottest April O’Neil ever. She’s our window into the world of the Turtles. A normal person just like us, she’s hungry to see what lurks behind the resistance to the Foot Clan’s attempt to take over New York City. Meanwhile, Will Arnett does a winning turn as Vern “That Old Guy” Fenwick. For the first time in a while, he seems to be doing something other than a variation on GOB Bluth.
This is how you want to spend the weekend after Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the summer of fun superhero movies that make you laugh while they excite you. Like the perfect pizza pie, this version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is just what the grown-up inner child ordered.