The Real Problems with the new TMNT
Disclaimer: This review is full of spoilers.
I’ve been a Ninja Turtles fan for as long as I can remember, from the gritty, sci fi comic by Eastman and Laird to all the incarnations that followed – the goofy 80s cartoons, their first live action movie, the Archie Comics, the video games, the toys, and even the Palladium RPG. Naturally, now that the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot is out and everyone’s complaining about it, I bought a ticket to see it. And here’s the deal – I agree with most Turtle fans that it’s not a very good movie. But most of the complaints I’ve heard don’t seem to be the real problems as I see them. The most common gripes are just superficial changes to how the characters look – and in some cases, what’s being dismissed is one of the few parts I actually thought were noteworthy.
For starters, everyone’s complaining about how the Turtles have been redesigned. They’re now humongous and scary looking and ridiculously powerful. When they slam a Foot soldier into a wall or flip a truck it’s actually pretty shocking because they could have just killed a guy. But I actually like the idea that the Turtles are monstrous. Remember, these guys are mutants – genetic mistakes that live in a sewer! I like that they run awkwardly and hit the ground with a mini earthquake. Making them ugly and scary lines up nicely with the idea that they’re freaks who have to hide from the people they protect – a classic theme that’s been a part of the TMNT mythology since the beginning.
Now that’s one ugly mug.
Similarly, everyone is up in arms over Megan Fox playing April O’Neil – something fans lamented long before there was any footage to show. Ironically, one of April O’Neil’s primary struggles in the new movie is that nobody gives her a chance to show what she’s capable of and everyone judges her based on her looks. So rather than getting the crime-based reporting jobs she wants, she’s stuck bouncing on a trampoline in front of the cameras, which of course is precisely where everyone thinks she belongs. The fact that the audience was so prejudiced against Fox before filming even started actually made me buy her in this role that much quicker.
By the way, if you want to criticize Megan O’Fox, it shouldn’t be because she “doesn’t look like April” (whatever that means – she’s looked pretty different in just about every remake). Personally, I didn’t have any real problems with Fox’s performance. The only thing I found distracting is that she can’t keep her mouth shut. And I don’t mean that she talks too much. I mean she literally keeps leaving her mouth open.
April O’Neil, The Slack-Jawed Reporter
Other common complaints seem to come from nostalgia – where any alteration to a cherished childhood memory is decried as blasphemy. But making changes in a reboot is not only normal, it’s desirable. I want new creators to depart from their inspirations and tell their own stories. The trick is making changes that work, and that keep the themes and plot of the film interesting and engaging.
For example, I like that in the new movie the Turtles are sneaking out against Splinter’s wishes to fight crime. Obviously, this is different from Splinter sending the Turtles out to avenge the death of his master. But by making the Turtles break curfew instead of fulfill their destiny, the new movie gives the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles more personality as rebellious kids outgrowing the rules. In fact, the whole movie is tied together with an ongoing question of how or why we should relate to our fathers – illustrated by April’s relationship with her late father, Sacks’s relationship with the Shredder as a surrogate father, and of course the Turtles’ relationship with Splinter. Sure, it was ham-fisted and clunky at times, but there’s nothing wrong with making changes if they work, and this was a good attempt by the filmmakers.
Daddy Issues for everyone!
The real problems with the reboot have to do with the incredibly poor characterization of some of the movie’s most important figures. For example, neither of the villains have any clearly developed motivation or internal life. Eric Sacks, the evil benefactor who builds robot suits and lives in a mansion with super science labs and vast, unlimited resources, is driven by the desire to become … “stupid rich.” Yes, that’s a direct quote from the movie, from the character himself. It really doesn’t make any sense, especially since earlier he seems to be driven by a messiah-like desire to save the world.
Likewise, the Shredder is handled terribly – and no, not because he looks like a Transformer (although he does, with Swiss Army Knives strapped to his arms). It has more to do with the fact that his character only seems to exist when you see him on screen. He has almost no relation at all to the rest of the movie or to any of the other characters. Why, for example, does Shredder say he wants to make sure the Foot Clan is remembered as more than a myth? Isn’t it enough that the whole city lives in constant terror of the Foot and they’re on the front page of literally every newspaper? How is this sentiment related to the last half hour of the movie, during which we see the Foot Clan as the primary threat to our heroes? It’s almost like the idea of the forgotten Foot clan was lifted from an earlier version of the script, before a major rewrite. These elements all came across to me as sloppy, lazy, and just plain confusing.
“Tonight I open a can of turtle soup!”
But to me, the most damning problem shows up in the character of Splinter, voiced by Tony Shalhoub. In the reboot, Splinter learns to be a ninja by reading an old ninja book he finds in the sewer. This offends me slightly as an amateur martial artist, but I can forgive that. What I can’t forgive, however, is the pseudo Asian way Splinter is portrayed throughout the film. Splinter is a New York City rat, raised by two American scientists in a New York lab, who gets mutated and then released into a New York sewer. He’s a New Yorker. He is not Japanese. There is no evidence that he has ever left NYC.
Why then does he decide to wear robes, sandals, a jade necklace, a rat version of the Fu Manchu, and speak with a vaguely ethnic accent? Are we supposed to think Splinter is a huge racist?!
A Fake Asian Rat, Four Mutant Monsters, and a Reporter with her Mouth Open.
Well, if so, it didn’t work on me. I don’t think Splinter is a huge racist. But I do think the filmmakers might be. The TMNT franchise has always run the risk of oversimplifying or caricaturing Asian Americans. It is, after all, the product of two American comic creators interpreting and appropriating Japanese culture to tell a story about Ninja Turtles fighting robots and eating pizza. But this is a much more flagrant problem.
Back when we thought the Shredder was going to be played by William Fichtner, we were all afraid an amazing Japanese character was going to be whitewashed by casting an American actor. But what we got instead was even worse – an amazing Japanese character turned into an American character … who spends his time doing an over-the-top, caricatured Japanese impression.