“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a completely passable and forgettable late summer CGI action film. It has a couple of nice moments and a couple laughs, but you won’t remember much of what you saw an hour after you leave the theater.
Let’s be honest: you can only maintain certain expectations when you’re talking about a movie centered around a group of 6-foot animated turtles. Yet this one definitely feels like everyone’s going through the motions.
The good news is that in spite of having Michael Bay on its producer list, “TMNT” manages to bypass most of the infamous director’s more tedious habits. There’s not a single slow-motion, low-angle tracking shot of someone getting out of a car in the whole film.
But even if Bay’s distinctive style is absent, director Jonathan Liebesman hasn’t done much to put his own signature on the film (or the franchise, which saw multiple installments back in the ’90s). “TMNT” shows some early promise, as a darkened subway battle suggests this re-boot might be using a little suspense and mystery to tell the now-familiar story. But the floodlights of exposition come on soon after, and what might have been an interesting take on the “heroes in a half-shell” becomes a routine exercise in good-guys-fight-the-bad-guys filmmaking.
“TMNT” starts things off from the perspective of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a frustrated TV journalist in New York City who is getting tired of doing puff pieces. She’s been digging up information on a local crime syndicate called the Foot Clan and the mysterious vigilantes who seem to be frustrating their efforts.
Her search eventually leads her to our title heroes, a quartet of mutated turtles living in the New York sewers who have been trained as crime-fighting martial arts experts by a mutated rat (insert NYC sewer joke here) named Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub). They’re also named after Italian Renaissance artists.
We soon learn that O’Neil has a history with these chaps, along with an entrepreneur named Eric Sacks (a traditionally slimy William Fichtner), who used to work with her father. Sacks also happens to be connected to the head of the Foot Clan, a dark martial arts master named Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), who looks like the chromed-out genetic offspring of Darth Vader and Edward Scissorhands. Sacks and Shredder are conspiring to take over the city through the use of a biotoxin derived from the same formula that mutated the turtles.
Unfortunately, what happens from here has less to do with plot and more to do with CGI action set pieces.
The presence of Fox, who rose to eye-candy stardom in Bay’s first two Transformer films, can be interpreted as either a demotion or a sign that the parties have made up after their public dust-up following “Revenge of the Fallen.” But either way, she probably won’t be winning any new converts with her acting ability (not that “TMNT” gives her much of an opportunity to try). Her human foil is fellow station co-worker Vernon Fenwick, played by Will Arnett, who struggles against his own Will Arnett-ness to portray a sympathetic sidekick.
Outside of longtime fans, the best audience for “TMNT” is probably a younger crowd, which is interesting, since a tad less mayhem might have slipped this one into a PG rating. As it is, “TMNT” is a pretty soft PG-13, lacking a lot of the profanity and sexual content that seems to come standard with the rating and especially Bay’s own directorial efforts.
Actually, “TMNT’s” most Bay-like flaw is the challenge in telling the heroes apart. Each of the turtles has a different colored bandana, and some unique personality traits surface from time to time. But unless you’re a diehard fan of the franchise, telling the turtles apart is as difficult as making sense of Bay’s manic array of Transformers.
Still, for all of its flaws, particularly a tendency to dramatize moments the story hasn’t given you reason to feel emotionally connected to, “TMNT’s” biggest shortfall might be its timing. With “Guardians of the Galaxy” breaking box office records through a similar blend of cheeky comedy and CGI action, this bland turtle adventure will have a tough time carving out its own slice of the pizza pie.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is rated PG-13 for considerable CGI action mayhem, some profanity and some mild sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.