If the franchise’s lifespan at all mirrors that of its reptilian real world counterpart, then we’re probably just exiting the throes of puberty for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. 30 years since the heroes on the half shell first surfaced, the comic turned merchandising fixture has become a pan-media stalwart, surviving off the endlessly reproducible chemistry and attitude of its hyperactive stars. Like many pop culture touchstones, each “Turtles” outing provides something of a bellwether for the filmmaking environment it’s born into. When it was announced that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes would be responsible for this latest reboot, with Bay producing, many felt justified to fear the worst.
Unsurprisingly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a very good movie, or even a half good one. Its dedication to nostalgia necessitates a story that plays like a big budget TV pilot, coasting by on the reverence Gen X-ers and younger audience members will have for a quartet of mutant martial artists with personalities as outsized as their shells. The film’s more modern overtures towards realism make the bloodless, but frequent violence counterproductive to a central message so worn-out, that a character who disappears for half the film can deliver the moral of the story without missing a beat. But, that these features are among the film’s most notable issues means it’s coming out a little ahead of the doomsday scenario many had envisioned, considering the pedigree.
Megan Fox stars – as much as a human can in a Ninja Turtles film – as April O’Neil, the most persistent person on planet Earth (as established by another character telling her as much the moment she’s introduced), and also New York City’s worst reporter. Figuring the best way to get off the fluff piece beat is to wander inadvertently or intentionally into the machinations of the city’s notorious Foot Clan gang, O’Neil is the first person to discover the rowdy, mutated vigilantes, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael, who fight to protect New York’s citizens. This is against the wishes of their rodent master, and adoptive-father, Splinter, who trains the turtles in ninjutsu after reading a “For Dummies” guide about it he finds in the sewers (characters following instructions from books, computers, or signs is something of a leitmotif for the film).
Borrowing heavily from the superhero origin story formula of films like The Amazing Spider-Man and Batman Begins, which sees dead humanitarian parent A eventually lead to chemical attack on the city B, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles moves at a nice clip once the turtles themselves are revealed, though to the detriment of the human lead. Fox gives as close to a committed performance as one can imagine possible for such a project, but once her computer-generated co-stars show up, her performance drifts by on vacant facial expressions and bad line readings. Perhaps that’s why the second half resigns her to mostly looking terrified and dangling from things, though she is more often an active participant in the action than many other women in superhero flicks. (And the script never calls her a gendered epithet for a gag; that’s at least one thing TMNT has over its weekend competition, Guardians of the Galaxy).
Combining the live action actors of the ‘90s “Turtle” films with the CGI of the 2007 entry, this newest Ninja Turtles is a culmination of the franchise’s filmmaking history, and its pop culture legacy. Some of the references have been updated to include viral videos and bad Lost ending jokes, but the distinct personalities of the turtles are the same as ever. Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) is the leader, Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the brains, and Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher) is the goof who constantly hits on April in ways that are creepy beyond just the cross-species differences. Surprisingly, what little emotional weight the film tries to carry is left to angsty Raphael (Alan Ritchson), which is reflective of the film’s 21st century self-seriousness that leaves little air for its sense of humor, tired as it might be.
“People like froth!” Will Arnett’s Vernon explains to April at one point, an early attempt by the film to excuse the franchise’s silliness, which this latest take is often afraid to fully embrace. Modern standards dictate maximum drama, orchestration, and stakes wherever possible. Even the expected product placement is overly overwrought. Dedicating a whole scene to Michelangelo’s fetish for Pizza Hut is at least brazen to the point of comic; Microsoft gets plenty of sneaky verbal and visual plugs in, as do at least a half dozen other major brands. The most hysterical attempt at subtle integration sees the film’s heavy inexplicably wearing an Under Armor shirt for most of the last hour. Presumably, his itinerary for the day begins with a light 5k, followed by addressing the henchman about the day’s villainy, and then maybe hitting the gym if he feels up to it.
Director Jonathan Liebesman, who you could generously call a gun for hire, is just as uncomfortable with a second-rate superhero flick as he was when doing Greek theatrics for Wrath of the Titans, or an alien invasion boom-fest for Battle: Los Angeles. Not since Battlefield Earth has the canted angle been tasked with trying to save so many poorly staged scenes. More frustrating is that Liebesman seemingly only remembers you can unzoom a camera during the film’s final third. Perhaps out of concern for what the animators could handle, most of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whether in dialogue or an action scene, is shot in close-up. You’ll have plenty of time to admire the solid effects that create the turtles, even if you’re not sure what exactly it is they’re doing in a given moment.
Yet, one can’t help but think of a more disastrous road not taken, and that a picture that’s often just uninspired and lazy is generally preferable to one as actively offensive and brutally excessive as other recent Bay-influenced projects. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does manage to avoid the egregious length and sequel seeding of other superhero films, perhaps since Nickelodeon knows they’ll never be more than ten years away from getting to take another crack at this. If anything, the film strikes a perfect balance between playing to its fanbase, and being so unremarkable to everyone outside the nostalgia pit, that they’ll have forgotten they ever saw this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by the time the next one comes around.
Given the pedigree, a forgettably bad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is perhaps the best result anyone could have hoped for.