Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Response to Alison Willmore's Critique of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) (SPOILERS)

Earlier this morning, I found an article on Facebook in which Buzzfeed movie critic Alison Willmore takes the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to task. In particular, she states that the 1990 film is in many ways superior. Although she does make some good points, I disagree with others. So hence this response:

#1: The Appearance of the Turtles

She thinks the Turtles are scary-looking. Although she doesn't explicitly use the phrase, the thing that comes to mind is "uncanny valley." They're close to human in appearance, but so close that it's revolting, not endearing. I didn't find them frightening, but given that one of the theories behind "uncanny valley" is that it's an evolutionary mechanism, I really can't fault her for something that's likely hard-wired into her brain.

One of the commentators, one Benjamin Kubilus, praises the 1990 design for giving them beaks. Given how these are mutated turtles and not, say, human babies injected with turtle DNA, their having beaks makes a lot of sense. Although Willmore didn't say this, I'll give her points for inspiring Kubilus to say this and giving him a platform. Obviously the Jim Henson creatures are less realistic-looking that Bay's turtles, but making the Turtles more "humanoid turtle" instead of "turtle-oid human" would have been a better design.

#2: The Turtles Aren't Fighting Crime

In the original film, the Turtles were already fighting street crime and only encountered an actual supervillain (Shredder) incidentally, by rescuing April from some of his minions she'd caught stealing from her television van. Here they get involved with supervillainy from the get-go.

However, that ties in with the reason Splinter trained them in the martial arts in the first place. Splinter said he trained them because if they went above-ground and tried to openly mingle with humanity, they would be mocked and treated as freaks (which is IMO an understatement--they wouldn't just be sitting by themselves at lunch; odds are someone would try to kill them or put them in a zoo) and would need to defend themselves. It was never his intention to deploy them as crime-fighters--this was a choice they made upon learning about the Foot Clan's depredations, a choice Splinter opposed. To quote Scripture, "To whom much is given much is expected" and the Turtles chose to challenge Shredder because they couldn't stand to see him terrorizing New York and had the means to do something about it.

If Willmore doesn't think this is a good story choice that's her call, but there are reasons they're not (at least during the events of the movie) general-purpose crime-fighters. Given how the film ends with their driving around an armed Turtle-Van, this might change.

She still makes the good point that the villains' evil scheme needs work. Although her argument that Sacks' motive is greed doesn't work because he's already rich--most white-collar criminals (at least the ones who make the news) are already well-off--it would have been better story-wise if this was something Sacks was doing for Shredder. One of the better aspects of the story was that Shredder was apparently Evil Mr. Miyagi to Sacks' Daniel-San when Sacks' father died in Vietnam and if Shredder was more explicitly established as the mastermind and Sacks his minion, this would expand on that.

#3: April O'Neill

Here's where I'm going to disagree with Willmore most strongly. This movie's April, rather than being an established reporter, seems to be new to the job based on how she talks about journalism school as though it's a recent thing. Furthermore, if she were around eight or nine years old in 1999, she's in her very early 20s now. Her superiors at the television station simply don't think her capable of doing more than fluff either due to her inexperience or her gender (the latter is less likely due to her boss being a woman, but still). And putting her on the trampoline isn't Fan-Service--she's too modestly dressed, it's shot from too far away, and it's over too quickly to be all, "Look at Hot Megan Fox on the Trampoline." Yes, her cameraman Vernon does leer at her behind at one point and it is played for laughs, but that's part of his character--he's lazy (he's content to do the feature stories April hates) and he's into her but too inept to really do much about it. Furthermore, she does display a great deal of "hard" news-gathering skills (by collecting evidence of turtle activity elsewhere--even if it didn't prove they were giant mutant turtles, it proved the Foot Clan had a rival), something her boss disdains rather than acknowledge.

And as far as her being important only because of who her dad was, the fact her father was a scientist only gave her access to the lab. It was her who fed the turtles and the rat pizza and gave them names (names that only a very smart child would know--any kid could come up with "Splinter," but the Renaissance artist names she gave the turtles shows intelligence). It was her who ran back into a burning laboratory to rescue Splinter and the turtles, something that Splinter explicitly said inspired him to be a father. He raised the turtles to think they were rescued from a fiery death by some kind of godlike being and when the turtles realize this, they bow to her. Wilmore's argument gives the 2014 April far too little credit.

And as far as April's father is concerned, he just comes off as an impulsive idiot. Rather than pretending to go along with Sacks' plan while secretly gathering evidence for the cops, he proceeds to flip out and destroy the laboratory while his daughter is in the building (putting her in danger from fire or the vengeful Sacks) and while Sacks is present. Considering how Sacks claims to have killed him, that was a really bad idea.

Finally, the budding romance between Casey Jones and April in the first film was poorly developed. In this film, however much Vernon crushes on her, she never reciprocates or even acknowledges his feelings. This holds true even after he dramatically rises above his previous worthlessness by helping rescue the turtles from Sacks and then beating the evil scientist down with a microscope and getting shot in the process. Feminist-inclined commentators have claimed Fox's character Mikaela in Transformers was a "trophy" for Sam, but here she has no romantic plot at all.

#4: Splinter's Asian-ness

There's actually a good point entangled in the Social Justice Warrior business. Splinter in the 1990 film was the pet of a Japanese martial artist and learned karate by mimicking his practicing master's movements. That would explain why, when he gained the ability to speak, he spoke English with a Japanese accent and had this shinobi-esque ethical system. In the 2014 film, Splinter taught himself and later the turtles martial arts from a book. That wouldn't explain his accent and manner of dress--even if he adopted other aspects of Japanese culture from the book, he wouldn't have the accent since he wouldn't have been exposed to Japanese language.

(Maybe if Splinter had been the pet of a rival ninja that Shredder killed and then Sacks claimed him for the lab that could explain it, but this isn't in the movie. It would be kind of clunky to include, although perhaps it would fit in the flashback scenes. Heck, perhaps Bay could include it in the sequel, although it would then inspire the same kind of complaints making Splinter and the turtles April's semi-pets did.)

That said, you can't win when you as a Western artist try to portray or borrow from a non-Western culture. She complains about the franchise's "exotification" of Japanese culture, but without including it, you couldn't have the Ninja Turtles in the first place. Ninja Turtles is a hell of a lot better than "Teenage Mutant Professional Wrestler Turtles" or "Teenage Mutant Boxing Turtles" (i.e. using a Western, not an Eastern, practice). However, then the franchise's creators would get crap for leaving out heroic non-Westerners, especially if they keep the Japanese Shredder as a villain. Then it'd be "heroic (culturally) white people against the Yellow Peril" and people would complain about that.

Obviously her argument leaves room for including Japanese culture, the martial arts, etc. in a non-stupid way, but how to do it?

#5: No Actually Getting to Know The Turtles

It's true that Bay could have developed the turtle characters better beyond the angry Raphael and the immature, blatantly-crushing-on-April Michelangelo. However, that would best be done subtly and in small bites. For example, there's some promotional material out there depicting Donatello wanting to be "the badass for once" that some interpret as an effort to overcome cowardice and others interpret as him not wanting to be in the backseat because he's the techie. Unfortunately, I didn't notice this in the actual film. Either interpretation of Donatello's character could have been interesting, given how one of the complaints about the film I've seen elsewhere is that the turtles (or at least those other than Raphael, whose development she doesn't acknowledge) are lacking characterization. And I did suggest a way to develop Leonardo as the team leader in an earlier blog post.

However, the interlude in the countryside in the first movie Willmore is nostalgic for is one of the most incredibly boring parts of the film. Not only that, but it gives Splinter the completely unexplained talent for astral projection that isn't foreshadowed and is never used again. Unless of course this was some kind of group hallucination and for all of them to see the exact same thing at the same time seems really tricky. I can understand her desire for more developed characters, but mimicking that sequence really isn't the way to go.

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