The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” deserved better than this. There are legions of young adults out there who literally grew up on the exploits of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, the crime-fighting terrapins who started out in an independent comic book created by struggling artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, and went on to become unlikely cultural icons in a hugely popular Saturday morning cartoon. A lot of these fans will likely turn out for sentimental reasons, if nothing else, to see the new Michael Bay-produced, live action feature reboot.
They will be disappointed.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” suffers from an absolute failure of tonal consistency. When your heroes are teenage mutant ninja turtles, you have to understand that your concept is kind of goofy from the get-go. In a cartoon, it isn’t a hard sell. Children are long-used to talking cartoon animal characters, and will accept them readily. When you’re insisting on doing this as a live action feature, elements of reality begin to creep in whether they’re in your best interests or not.
The turtles themselves, who act more like east coast, city teenagers, are now brought to life by motion capture and CGI, with impressive results. They’re also much bigger and far more genuinely reptilian-looking than in either the cartoon or the 1990 live action movie that used turtle suits and animatronics.
This is a far edgier approach. Writers Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec have actually opted for a relatively straight superhero movie with liberal amounts of comic relief. They haven’t done either exceptionally well. As a superhero movie, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a derivative retread - at best a pale imitation of “The Dark Knight Rises.” And the jokes are terrible.
Megan Fox, having entered a ceasefire with former and current boss Michael Bay, leads the human contingent of the cast as aspiring TV journalist April O’Neil, whose backstory is predictably and implausibly grafted onto the turtles. Despite being somewhat more smoldering than previous incarnations of the character, Fox is nonetheless suitably innocent and sincere, and unlikely to offend adolescent males in any event. Will Arnett is convincing as her slightly smarmy, would-be love interest, and William Fichtner, one of the best actors in Hollywood, is hampered only by the fact that audiences reflexively expect him to play a heavy. Whoopi Goldberg picks up a quick paycheck, period.
Director Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle: Los Angeles,” “Wrath of the Titans”) competently manages a sprawling, technically complex production, but with no wit, style, warmth or charm. He isn’t helped by the Michael Bay imprimatur that’s all over this heavy industrial exercise masquerading as a movie. The villain Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) wears tons of shiny, spiky samurai armor, which makes him look not un-Transformeresque, never more so than in the endless fight scenes that dominate the third act. And as in Bay’s “Transformer” movies, rather than leaving the audience wanting more, the very lengthy martial arts action scenes are likely to have adult viewers checking their watches.
The 3D is impressive, and adds undeniable freneticism to the action scenes. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is set in New York City around the beginning of spring, and benefits from some handsome location shooting. Snow is perfectly possible in New York City in early spring, though there isn’t any in the movie. Why there’s significant snow at a gothic mansion apparently a short drive from the city is never explained.