Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
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100 min.
Release Date
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Imagine yourself locked in a room for 100 minutes with four of the most obnoxious teenagers you’ll ever meet. Raised on a steady diet of pop culture and pizza, the beatboxing adolescents bicker endlessly and speak in an outdated form of 1980s surfer dude lingo. They fist-bump and say things like “my bad” and “I got this” all the time, blathering on continuously but without anything to say. Each one more insufferable than the last, they somehow managed to learn the art of ninjutsu from their master, who is self-taught from a shabby book found discarded on a sewer floor. And yes, the teenagers dwell in the sewer and probably smell like rancid human waste. What’s more, the teens are giant turtle creatures, and their master is a particularly greasy-looking rat. Now imagine Megan Fox is there too, practicing her various pouty lip poses. Add rude humor, a robo-samurai, and some nonsense about alien mutagens to the situation, and then shoot it all in shaky-cam action. If you can imagine all that, then you have some idea of what it’s like to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Paramount Pictures’ monopoly on ’80s franchise reboots (see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra or Battleship) continues with the latest screen iteration of the popular series, which Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman created for the comics. Since their first appearance in 1984, the irregular TMNT franchise has resulted in assorted children’s television shows and toy lines; three live-action movies hit the big screen in the early 1990s, and then an animated feature in 2007. In recent years, Nickelodeon created a CG-animated TV series, and now Nickelodeon Movies has teamed with Paramount for this Michael Bay production. And much like Paramount’s Transformers franchise under Bay, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles contains no end of frenzied action, off-color humor, and bombastic special FX—although no one will walk away offended, unlike Bay’s previous efforts. Perhaps jaded about the state of Hollywood blockbusters today, but not offended.

The story begins with a prologue that’s meant to explain the Ninja Turtles’ origins, but if viewers going into the movie didn’t already know where these heroes-in-a-half-shell came from, the unclear opening won’t help. Evil sharp-edged baddie Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his Foot Clan of goons have plagued New York City for years, and only recently have vigilantes stepped out of the darkness to stop them (cue Batman Begins references). The Turtles—leader of the pack Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), tech-whiz Donatello (Jeremy Howard), jokester Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and tough guy Raphael (Alan Ritchson)—are witnessed by wannabe crime reporter April O’Neil (Fox), who tries to convince her editor (Whoopi Goldberg) and smarmy cameraman Verne (Will Arnett) that the masked heroes exist. Turns out April once owned the Turtles as pets, along with their rodent master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), who looks like a reject from Graveyard Shift (1990). Somehow, the existence of mutated talking animals is connected to alien DNA and a dastardly get-rich-quick terrorism scheme by a security company executive (William Fichtner).

Throughout the mindless procession of PG-13 violence, the Turtles engage in banter amongst themselves, none of it expanding the heroic characters beyond their one-note descriptions. And all the way through, Michelangelo makes frequent passes at April, but his remarks are never more disturbing or head-scratching than a comment about a tightening shell that tells us more than we’d ever want to know about Ninja Turtle arousal. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) interprets the screenplay, credited to three writers, with his usual proclivity for visual chaos. But CG animation does all the heavy lifting during the overlong combat sequences, realized in a demolition style best attributed to Bay. Turtles flip about the screen, cuts occur frequently, and tracing any shot-by-shot logic is nearly impossible. At any point during the movie, trying to figure out what’s going on and why is pretty pointless, because no matter how illogical it may seem, the kiddies in the audience are cheering with glee over these grotesque-looking, anthropomorphized reptiles.

Indeed, motion capture and a push toward photo-real animation result in rather gross heroes (with nostrils), particularly in the case of Splinter, whose slimy quality incites some latent Bubonic anxiety. (The Jim Henson Creature Shop’s spongy guy-in-a-suit creations for the string of 1990s movies are much preferred, despite their now-dated look.) And even though the characters and situations of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are recognizable enough for those familiar with TMNT lore, the movie is lifelessly assembled and devoid of any interpretive insight that would otherwise justify returning to the franchise. But then, this movie was made to sell toys, and video games, and exist as nothing more than a commercial prospect, and to that end, it has reestablished the Turtles with a winning box-office performance. Those of us not engaged in the film are left with product placements: a distracting in-film preoccupation with Skype, and a particularly ostentatious attention to Pizza Hut, make the film feel even more commercialized than The LEGO Movie. One can only guess which franchise Paramount will pick next: Battletoads or Biker Mice from Mars?

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