Silver Screen: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles *
When director, producer, and possible sentient mannequin Michael Bay first announced that he would oversee a live-action reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, angry internet commenters— our nation’s most abundant resource— scoffed at the proposed design of the characters and initial suggestions that they might be reimagined as aliens. Nostalgia-addled man-children of the world take heart— Bay hasn’t defiled the Turtles, but kept them true to their nature: as a merchandise-moving band of cold-blooded corporate shills best enjoyed by those whose pubier days still lie ahead.
The Ninja Turtles were created as a small-press comic-book lark by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in a less-colorful incarnation before some genius— not unlike the guy who realized you could stretch a thirty-second toy commercial to thirty minutes and charge money by calling it a show— recognized their marketing potential. Thus began an era of Pizza Hut and Burger King tie-ins, breakfast cereal, gummy snacks, videogames, a crappy touring musical revue (featuring non-hits like “Pizza Power”), and a themed ice-skating show.
Yes, nineties kids, your childhood was a scam. There’s no one better to deliver this inadvertent history lesson than Bay, who’s a cartoonish human being himself. In his efforts make the Turtles bigger, grimmer, and more modern, he’s giving you exactly what his predecessors gave you: whatever the hell it is they think you might want.
It’s no surprise then that this latest Turtles reboot is so dully competent. The property is retrofitted for compatibility with the standard superhero origin-story formula. It sounds odd to say that a movie about a group of chemically enhanced martial-arts-practicing sewer-dwelling reptiles is indistinctive, and yet, there it is.
The first twenty minutes of the movie are a tedious, Turtle-less dump of exposition establishing the plucky, vacant TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who’s eager to make her career by breaking a story about the Foot Clan, an oppressive gang that terrorizes New York City. Her not-so-intrepid investigation leads her, eventually, at long last, to meet the Turtles, who have spent their youth training under their elderly mutant rat sensei Master Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub). Together they discover that evil industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) is conspiring with the Foot Clan leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) to take over New York via a poison gas attack. Computer-animated hijinks ensue.
Those between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five will recall that the Turtles offered a kind of basic personality test. Your preference of Turtle revealed your essential temperament, be you a fun-loving Michaelangelo, a Donatello (nerd), a Leonardo (boring), or a Raphael (dick). The latest iteration of the group preserves that dynamic, further clarifying it by giving Donatello taped-up glasses and Raphael a menacing-bordering-on-insensitive doo-rag. They’re far bulkier now, bulletproof, and entirely computer-animated. The digital effects are proficient but soulless, and generally terrible director Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle: Los Angeles) can’t convincingly merge their digital acrobatics with the real-world setting. The leaps lack gravity, the punches have no impact, and often the combat is reduced to a frenzied motion blur.
At least the Turtles retain a dash of wisecracking energy, even if the merriment is forced. The rest of the movie is both hurried and inert. When the heroes in a half shell aren’t onscreen, Will Arnett (Arrested Development), playing April’s lovelorn cameraman, gamely tries to mug-and-riff it into life. But Liebesman and his cadre of screenwriters have drained away most of the kooky, campy fun. The villains are no longer an army of urban ninjas but faceless paramilitary thugs wielding machine guns who look like they wandered over from a different but similarly bland summer blockbuster. Shredder is established as a fearsome foe only to be hidden away inside a preposterous, anime-inspired suit made of swords and hyperbole; it looks like someone turned HBO’s Iron Throne setpiece into a winter coat. The wonderfully serpentine Fichtner is far more compelling— if you’re gonna stuff the bad guy into a mech suit, why not just make him the main villain?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does find time to get down to business— namely some product-placement billboards for Victoria’s Secret and even an entire scene constructed around a mythical ninety-nine-cheese pizza from Pizza Hut. The movie hits all the perfunctory notes on its way to programming its own sequel. Because Michael Bay doesn’t make things, Michael Bay makes more of things.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.