The ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Reboot is Really Just a ‘Transformers’ Remake
If something seems strangely familiar about the new 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' reboot opening Friday, that’s not too surprising, since Jonathan Liebesman’s film is little more than a thinly veiled remake of the 'Transformers' movies. Sure, the nominal source material for this latest Ninja Turtles adventure is Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s 1980s comic books, as well as the cartoon series and three live-action films from the early ‘90s, all of which led to a merchandising bonanza built around the characters’ good-natured valor, love of pizza, and fondness for exclamations like “gnarly!”, “radical!” and “cowabunga!”
Yet a closer inspection of Liebesman’s adaptation reveals that, far more than those predecessors, the real inspiration for this wannabe-blockbuster is its producer Michael Bay’s four robot-centric extravaganzas. As proof, here’s a rundown of the many clues that 'TMNT' is nothing but 'Transformers' in a half shell. [SPOILERS ahead for 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'.]
Turtles in Disguise
Liebesman’s film mirrors the basic plot outline of 2007’s 'Transformers': a covert group of superpowered do-gooders -- who operate under the cover of darkness -- endeavor to protect mankind against a shadowy villain (Shredder) who wears gigantic robot armor (making him a samurai variation of Megatron) who is intent on seizing power by murdering millions of innocents. As in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' the film’s extraordinary villain is in league with a suave American businessman (William Fichtner) who lusts for profit. To foil this evil plot, the Turtles must team up with a human who – like 'Transformers'’ nerdy Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose grandfather is the key to the initial film’s mystery – must be equal parts brave, goofy, and somehow historically connected to the astonishing heroes.
The Megan Connection
That person turns out to be April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a struggling TV news reporter who befriends (and turns out to be the original pet owners of) Donatello, Rafael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo -- who were transformed from ordinary turtles into amazing, ass-kicking humanoid heroes by her father. Fox, of course, also starred in Bay’s first two 'Transformers' films, and she’s used almost identically here – which is to say, as teen hormone-stimulating eye candy, replete with a Bay-style shot that fixates on her bent-over behind while her coworker, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), applauds the quality of her posterior. Moreover, Liebesman routinely zooms into low-angled close-ups of Fox as she ducks for cover on the ground, her hair blowing backwards in the wind – the signature Fox portrait used by Bay in both of her Transformers outings.
Arnett’s cameraman Vernon is the de facto “funny guy” in 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' which means he fulfills the peripheral role previously assumed by John Turturro and Stanley Tucci in the 'Transformers' franchise. Though Arnett is never humiliated as badly as Turturro was in 'Transformers' when Bay had Bumblebee pee on the actor (hilarious), he remains the butt of a recurring joke about how loser Vernon wants, but can’t get, a date with April -- all while talking in rapid-fire fashion that makes him seem first like a hyper-skeptical weirdo, and then as a clownishly clueless sidekick.
Less Than Meets the Eye
As in their previous incarnations, the Turtles are a wisecracking foursome in 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' with the most colorful being Michelangelo, whose personality has the same hip-hop-y vibe (sample dialogue: “Welcome to my crib, girrl!”) as that of Transformers’ repugnant Mudflap and Skids, albeit thankfully minus the racist visual characterization to match. Moreover, Michelangelo and his comrades have been raised on a steady diet of contemporary music, as we learn in a flashback scene that finds them raptly watching, and then dancing along to, Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” video. This aligns them closely with the weaned-on-American-pop-culture Autobots, and specifically with the talking-through-the-radio Bumblebee.
The Turtles are a ragtag bunch of bickering-but-loyal teenage brothers, and they’re guided by a wise leader in the figure of anthropomorphic rat sensei Master Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub). As the strategic mastermind and calm voice of reason amidst the immature chaos wrought by the Turtles, Splinter is the film’s nominal Optimus Prime. Exhorting his charges to do – and be – better, all while delivering uplifting platitudes and sacrificing himself for his surrogate children. That he eventually [spoiler alert] suffers a fake-out death mid-way through the film, only to be resurrected at its conclusion, merely furthers his connection to Optimus, who experiences a similar arc in 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.'
Style to Burn
The prototypical Michael Bay aesthetic is on full display throughout Liebesman’s saga: Shiny surfaces, all-CG protagonists and explosions, super-slow-motion for key combat moments, cinematography that whooshes and spins around protagonists in battle, low-level pans past speeding vehicles, upturned-angled shots of statuesque beauties and buff heroes standing in striking poses, hectic action editing that obscures any sense of spatial lucidity, computer-generated set pieces that move at breakneck speed and ignore all laws of physics, and a general, overarching car-commercial visual sheen that coats every image caught by the spastic camera’s eye. During a mountainside scene involving a swinging semi-truck, as well as the final showdown between Shredder and the Turtles, 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' even borrows some of the same ominous groaning-clanking-grinding-metal sound effects from 'Transformers.'
Place That Product
Just as 'Transformers' hawks all sorts of brand-name consumer goods, so too does 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' go out of its way to brazenly highlight some of its commercial partners through gratuitous in-film advertising. Pizza Hut, Skype, Toshiba, Dunkin Donuts and Victoria’s Secret get visual shout-outs during the course of this frantic fantasy, thereby solidifying Bay’s reputation for making sure that his films please not only his teenage-boy fan base, but also the investors who helped him stage such juvenile mayhem in the first place.
Pop Music Punctuation
Bay’s 'Transformers' movies always close with a bombastic rock anthem, be it by Linkin Park (the first three installments) or Imagine Dragons (this past July’s 'Age of Extinction'). As a disciple determined to follow suit, Liebesman hews to the Transformers template here as well, while also paying homage to the original ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, by having his end-credits scored to rapper Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J’s propulsive hip-hop single 'Shellshocked.' It may not quite soar like a bro-tastic Link Park track, but then again, it’s also not Vanilla Ice’s infamous 'Ninja Rap' either.