Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 101 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a reboot of the franchise that began with comic books and morphed into television shows and films and general pop-culture ubiquity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But it’s essentially a “Transformers” movie — a Michael Bay production complete with mass destruction, urban panic, white-hot lighting, inane quips, product placement, explosions and, well, Megan Fox.
Fox is back working for Bay after infamously comparing the director to Adolf Hitler in 2009 and getting booted as the “Transformers” series’ obligatory eye candy after only two films. Now Bay, as producer, appears to have given her a make-good. Her performance as intrepid television reporter April O’Neil is the most believable element of this movie. Let that sink in for a minute.
This “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t aggressively terrible. It’s just kind of bland and boring. Granted, it holds no nostalgic tug for me; I was in college by the time the original movies came out, so I’m a little too old for all this. But there’s nothing spectacular about this spectacle. It’s the kind of glossy, empty, CGI-heavy extravaganza you get in the middle of August and soon forget. Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle Los Angeles,” “Wrath of the Titans”) is the director; he knows his way around this kind of enormous action picture and presents his set pieces with sufficient coherence, if not much panache.
One of the main problems — beyond the script from Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty — is that the turtles themselves are just distractingly creepy-looking. Yes, you can tell which one is which thanks to their signature, color-coded masks. But they’re all just weirdly blob-like, despite their hard shells and sharp weapons. This is especially apparent when they talk — which they do, a lot, because they’re gabby, hyperactive teenagers. Forgive me if I’d like a little realism in my Ninja Turtles movies.
Here’s the deal this time around: It’s an origin story. So novel.
A criminal group called the Foot Clan is terrorizing New York City. April, whose ambitions reach far beyond the fluff pieces she’s usually assigned, digs around alone late at night and discovers a group of mysterious vigilante crimefighters is already on the case. With a little more digging, she determines that they are turtles. And they are teenagers. And they are ninjas. And they’re named after Renaissance painters.
Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville, played by Peter Ploszek), in blue, is the de facto leader. Donatello (Jeremy Howard), in purple, is the tech geek. Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher), in orange, is the wisecracking flirt. And Raphael (Alan Ritchson), in red, is the muscular hothead. Each of these characters is constrained within his specific, one-note mode — nothing more, nothing less — for the entirety of the film.
April’s smitten photographer, Vernon (Will Arnett, thankfully straying from his “Arrested Development” Gob persona), doesn’t believe her. Neither does her no-nonsense producer (Whoopi Goldberg, for whatever reason). Because really, who would? But it’s true. These are mutated turtles who’ve grown up in the sewers of Manhattan and trained in the art of ninjutsu by their rat sensei, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub, played by Danny Woodburn), to serve as protectors of the city. Everyone she informs of her discovery thinks she’s crazy — and for a while, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” acknowledges its inherent ridiculousness in welcome fashion. That is, until it abruptly shifts and starts to take its own mythology seriously.
April works with the turtles to get to the bottom of the Foot Clan’s nefarious plan, the architect of which is an old family friend of hers: scientist Eric Sacks, her late father’s former research partner who’s now a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist. Even before we find out what Sacks is up to, it’s obvious that he’s evil the minute he steps on screen because he’s played by the ever-reliable character actor William Fichtner. But the one who’s really in charge is Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), a samurai who dons a suit of armor which basically turns him into Japanese Megatron. (I brought Nicolas with me to the “Ninja Turtles” screening, and when Shredder appeared in all his fierce, shiny, metallic glory, he turned to me and asked, “Mommy, why is Megatron here?” It’s an excellent question.)
Massive, noisy battles ensue, placing many thousands of innocent New Yorkers in peril. One sequence in which the top of a high-rise topples over, stranding our heroes in a brilliant, blue sky, is straight out of the third “Transformers” movie. But even that isn’t nearly as thrilling as it sounds. Another major set piece — a chase involving an 18-wheeler skidding down a steep, snowy mountain as the turtles go sledding on their shells (joking around the whole time, naturally) — is choreographed in a complex way. But it looks so cartoony and detached from the laws of physics that it’s hard to become engrossed in it the way we should. My mind kept wandering, wondering where there could be this kind of topography and this amount of snow this close to New York City this time of year.
But then I just thought about all that delicious Pizza Hut pizza and Orange Crush the turtles consume in the sewers — because the movie pretty much stops in its tracks to provide commercials for these products — and my mind turned to pondering what Nicolas and I should eat for dinner after the movie.