Movie review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The Michael Bay-directed TMNT reboot ignores self-awareness to its detriment.

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On the rare occasions I'm given to ponder the relevance and appeal of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — and such an occasion has now presented itself — they've struck me as pop-culture artifacts whose enduring popularity is mainly a function of the outsized weirdness of their conception. I say this with a giant asterisk: I've never read a TMNT comic book, nor seen the early-'90s theatrical debut, nor spent more than a few minutes with any of their cartoons. But I do know that this reintroduction on the big screen features April O'Neil, pizza, Master Splinter and Shredder. All the basic ingredients needed for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie save for the one that would make it entertaining: self-awareness.

In its place, the movie has a lot that it doesn't need, including slick, empty-headed bombast bearing the influence of producer Michael Bay. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also values other Bay trademarks, like loud, processed audio effects; action scenes that go on and on and are often difficult to follow; and humor that operates almost entirely on a frat-boy level that thinks macho teasing and stupidity is hilarious.

Within these parameters, TMNT is half — maybe three-quarters — bad. And the good is a function of the protagonists being such a bonkers creation, and of the earnest performances behind the impressive CGI. Unfortunately, the actors and the icons they play are stuck in a standard-issue action film. Worse, a standard-issue Michael Bay action film with the most boring of plots: A corporate tycoon wants to create a health disaster for New York City and then get paid for providing the antidote. Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle Los Angeles) directs, but doesn't bring anything distinctive, and his action scenes lack punch and thrills. Even though there's little if any bloodshed, the battles with their rival are intense within the context of a kids' film.

Megan Fox (who does good work here) gets the story going as April O'Neil, an on-camera news reporter stuck doing fluff pieces for a New York City TV station. She catches what she thinks is her big break after witnessing a chemical heist at a shipyard. But dreams, as sometimes is their wont, have a way of being deferred, and so are April's when she unwisely tells her disbelieving boss (Whoopi Goldberg) about four human-sized turtles with martial-arts skills.

The movie keeps its "heroes in a half shell" shrouded in shadows for the first couple of quick action scenes before bringing them and April face-to-face. That's when we learn that Raphael is the hothead, Michelangelo the ham who loves attention, Donatello the nerdy-voiced tech whiz, and Leonardo the level-headed leader. To avoid human interaction, they live beneath the city guided by Splinter, a giant rat with a Zen master's demeanor.

It isn't necessary to know TMNT lore to enjoy (or not enjoy) the movie. Those who are already fans may appreciate the easy nostalgia tossed their way. But for all viewers, the film is mostly dull and drab. It needn't have been. The turtles and their movie should be commenting on their strangeness and absurdity, and having fun. And explaining to us how a giant rat, with no means of income, is able to order and pay for delivery pizzas undetected. Maybe that will be explained in the sequel.

2.5 out of 5 stars
Rated PG-13. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Starring Megan Fox, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Noel Fisher, Will Arnett, Danny Woodburn, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville, and Tony Shalhoub. Now playing.

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