Believe it or not, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a surprisingly entertaining movie. Unlike other franchises based on cartoons made to sell action figures produced by Michael Bay, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is also a narratively coherent movie with action scenes that exhibit a sense of relative geography and logical causation. Sure, the humor is still juvenile (most generously reckoned) and the product placement is shameless, but at least the movie is only an hour and a half long, which is just long enough to be diverting without becoming annoying.
Besides the fact that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a coherent movie, three things in particular interested me in the movie. First, if, when you are watching this, you pretend that you have no prior cultural knowledge of the Ninja Turtles, this movie becomes an almost surreal experience. This is a movie about six foot tall, talking, teenage turtles who wear masks, live in the sewer, love pizza, and practice martial arts. They’re also named after Renaissance painters. This is all portrayed in the movie with absolute seriousness, as if the audience will have no trouble accepting this concept whatsoever, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
How odd! In a movie world that wasn’t already inundated with high concept, live action/animated hybrid, expensively produced cartoons, the existence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be a sideshow curiosity. People would be lining up around the block nickels-in-hand to peak behind the tent flap and gaze at the grotesques in the black-lit tank. As it is, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is just another in a long line of live-action cartoons that we’re all meant to applaud. The freak show has taken over the three rings, and the acrobats and animal trainers have been shoved to the side.
Watching movies like this, I often feel like the butt of the joke. It’s okay. I don’t mind. I like a good troop of clowns. If they respect me enough to have practiced their schtick enough to include moments of real surprise and humor, I don’t mind being sprayed in the face with a seltzer bottle every once in a while. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that kind of clown, and the seltzer spray comes at the end when a character delivers a line of trite moralization at which the movie immediately scoffs. I spent the entire movie trying fruitlessly to find some vein of seriousness, some lesson, some moral the movie was trying to convey, and then at the end the movie itself made sure I knew that was a pursuit more ridiculous than anything that had happened in the story. That seltzer spray in the face is the second thing that interested me in this movie. I was surprised how gleefully Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles eschews all meaning.
The final thing that interested me in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was Megan Fox. She plays the Turtles’ reporter friend April O’Neill. Remember, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a comic book, cartoon, and movie series aimed at teenage boys, so April is consistently treated like teenage boys treat women–as newly discovered objects of sexual desire. The Turtles fall over themselves trying to impress her. They are aware of a felt need to protect her even though she seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself. They vie for her attention and talk about her longingly when she’s not around. One of the Turtles even “calls dibs” on April after they first encounter her.
If this behavior was relegated to the teenage, male turtles it was be understandable, even if the Turtles would still be in obvious need of mature, male role models. The most dispiriting thing about the movie is that it extends this testosterone-fueled immaturity to the adult males in the movie as well. Since the movie doesn’t depict an alternative way to interact with women, the overall feel of the movie is one of deep misogyny. Broadly, teenage boys are sexist, and I assume anthropomorphized, teenage turtles would be too, but part of growing up is learning how to treat women with respect and how to channel sexual energy appropriately. These ratty teenage, mutant, ninja turtles need mentors who aren’t, themselves, rats.
Megan Fox portrays April as an intelligent, capable, industrious woman whom no one, not even other women, takes seriously because of her nubile appearance. That the movie itself treats her this way as well—its camera consistently leering at her and using her feminine anatomy as the punch line of many visual jokes—is particularly reprehensible. The story doesn’t even let April save herself, giving that heroic moment to one of her juvenile, male companions instead. Throughout, April is unfazed by the rampant chauvinism. She doesn’t protest it, but she doesn’t acknowledge it either. She simply soldiers on. I got the feeling she’d put up with this sort of behavior from men for so long, she’d become callous to it, determined to do some worthwhile work in a world that has decided to cast her as a thing to be conquered. As brisk and basely entertaining as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may be, Megan Fox deserves a better movie.