Bring back the Jim Henson garb! New CGI Ninja Turtles lack soul

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s getting hard to keep track of the Ninja Turtles, even for those of us who grew up smashing the action figures at cowabunga pizza parties.

For us, nothing will top the ’80s Saturday morning cartoon, in which James Avery (“Fresh Prince”) voiced Shredder, nor Jim Henson’s ’90s “puppetechtronic” trilogy, in which Elias Koteas (“Fallen”) made a mean Casey Jones and David Warner (“The Omen”) discovered the secret of the ooze.

But while we remember the Nintendo cheat code for infinite turtle lives — B, A, B, A, Up, Down, B, A, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start — should this blockbuster brand also have infinite Hollywood lives?

The first big reboot was the widely-panned 2007 computer-animated flick “TMNT,” voiced by Chris Evans, Kevin Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne. The Heroes in a Half Shell returned again in 2014 with a live-action flick produced by Michael Bay (“Transformers”) and directed by Jonathan Liebesman (“Wrath of the Titans”), starring Megan Fox and Will Arnett.

Now, we get “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” finding Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) chilling in the sewers with Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) after having saved New York in the last installment.

TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and “Falcon” friend Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) are the only ones who know the truth of the Turtles’ heroism, but their fellow good guys Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) and Chief Vincent (Laura Linney) are about to find out — as more trouble is on the horizon.

The Foot Clan is plotting a jailbreak for the evil Shredder (Brian Tee), who conspires to open a portal over New York to allow Krang (Brad Garrett) to arrive in the dreaded Technodrome. Along the way, Shredder seeks help from mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), who transforms a pair of goons into henchmen named Bee Bop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (WWE’s Sheamus).

If you were raised on the animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1987-1996), there’s plenty of nostalgia here. Bee Bop and Rocksteady are familiar bumbling idiots as a warthog and rhinoceros, although the cartoon’s explanation made far more sense for their transformation, as the goons stood next to zoo animals, rather than the new device of purple ooze bringing out their “inner animals.”

Similarly, Baxter Stockman brings back great memories as the mad scientist working on dangerous mutations for a biotech company (TCRI in the comics, TGRI in the old movies). Tyler Perry goes for broke in the role, finding a funny, nerdy Professor Klump walk from “The Nutty Professor” (1996).

Still, for some reason, the film never transforms Perry into his character’s alter ego as a giant mutant fly. You can’t have Baxter Stockman without The Fly! Where’s Jeff Goldblum when we need him?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Instead, Baxter is hauled away before the climax, oddly never to be seen again. Likewise, even the film’s chief villain Shredder is put on the shelf for the finale, disappearing from view for the last 20 minutes of movie. Instead, Krang the Brain steps in for the entire final fight in the Technodrome.

To the film’s credit, the idea of making the Technodrome a floating Death Star is an awesome concept, marking a fascinating change from the old tank treads rolling through underground tunnels. But the fight that unfolds inside this vast digital set piece is barely cinematic. Instead, it looks like some video game interstitial aimed to show off Playstation’s amazing new graphics while the next level loads.

This is the problem with the entire movie — a clash between live reality and digital phoniness. This is apparent from the start at Madison Square Garden, as the CGI Turtles sit in the foreground looking entirely fake compared to the real-life New York Knicks basketball court in the deep background. A river rapid sequence works better visually, but overall, it’s a distracting blend of actors and CGI.

Call me old school, but I much prefer the old look of actors in highly sophisticated costumes.

Those 1990 live-action costumes were a work of art, where Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London spent 18 weeks designing the cutting-edge “puppetechtronics.” Each human actor was given a 15-piece costume made of foam and latex that allowed them to perform actual martial arts stunts.

Their facial expressions were controlled by off-camera puppeteers, who operated 40 pounds of motors hooked to computers located inside the turtle shells. Each puppeteer used a joystick to move the eyes, a glove to move the jaws and a light-sensor headset to capture their expressions and mimic the movements on the rubber-latex lips, which were synchronized with the voice-over dialogue.

Directed by Steve Barron — whose visual effects spiced up MTV music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” A-Ha’s “Take On Me” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” — the 1990 live-action “Turtles” flick was highly profitable, made for just $13.5 million before grossing $200 million worldwide, not to mention two popular sequels that earned $78 million and $42 million, respectively.

Not only is it less realistic to watch these new digital creatures, it opens Pandora’s Box for the script to take ridiculous turns, as in the plane scene where a Turtle asks, “What would Vin Diesel do?” Is “Fast and Furious” really a model to be followed? You’re aiming for mediocrity at best, just like when you embrace “Transformers” by having Michelangelo salute a Transformers mascot in Times Square.

“Transformers” chief Michael Bay again casts the gorgeous but limited Megan Fox as April O’Neil, dressing her in a Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time” schoolgirl outfit for the pubescent audience to salivate. It was far more interesting to watch a farmhouse romance between Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas in 1990. Even when Paige Turco subbed in the sequel, she was more than eye candy.

I suppose Fox gets the job done, as does Stephen Amell as Casey Jones, but their interplay could have used more attention. The script teases a potential romance between them that never quite blooms, while the highly talented Will Arnett (“The Lego Movie”) gets lost in the shuffle with nothing to do.

It’s a head-scratching choice for director Dave Green in his second feature after “Earth to Echo” (2014), though the blame falls to screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemac. The duo has chops for action dialogue, having penned the awesome repartee in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (2011). But the plot of “Out of the Shadows” is a sloppy spin on their 2014 “Turtles” script.

That previous movie was nominated for Worst Picture at the Razzies, but won Favorite Movie at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. That’s exactly the type of movie this is, playing cheaply to the children without offering another layer for the adults — like Pixar and Marvel have managed to do.

Ironically, the film’s one attempt to reach an older audience — quoting Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980) — actually sums up the franchise: “We love your work, especially the early stuff.” When the 2016 version puts Vanilla Ice on the bar jukebox and samples his “Ninja Rap” in the end credits, it signals a franchise that’s out of ideas and pandering to an audience that grew up long ago.

Focus on making a good movie in its own right, one that will wow the kids and surprise the adults, and the blockbuster money will follow. Don’t try to take something old and replicate it in a different era.

It’s great that a new generation is discovering the Ninja Turtles, but so far, it’s fallen short of the original, organic efforts. Or, we’re all just growing up — a fact of life that isn’t gnarly, rad or tubular.

In the end, there’s enough mindless fun here for the least-critical child to enjoy. So if you’re a kid, by all means, cowabunga dude! But if you’re an adult over 30, maybe crawl inside your shell and hide.

2-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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