If the antic whimsy of Guardians of the Galaxy or Hercules or even Lucy is too much for you, you could always check out the more serious goings-on in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Portentous when it should be goofy, lumbering when it should be spry, this reboot of the comic/movie/TV show wants to reimagine the beloved, tongue-in-cheek kids’ phenomenon into a more weighty, pseudorealistic action spectacle. Well, mission accomplished, sort of. This new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle: L.A.) and produced by Michael Bay (Armageddon, Armageddon) is largely indistinguishable from any number of bloated superhero spectacles that have already graced our screens. Your kids may not mind it, but it’s more insistent than it is fun.
There’s always been a weird discrepancy in the Ninja Turtles concept. (You can learn more about it here.) Before they became popular among young children, the original heroes were a surreal lark inserted into an action scenario that was equal parts parodic and sincere. You could understand why they were a hit in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when pastiche ruled the day. It’s clear on which side of this divide Liebesman and Bay’s allegiances lie. There’s plenty of humor in Ninja Turtles, but it feels welded on. The movie wants to be a kickass action spectacle first.
The film maintains the Turtles’ familiar character traits (Michelangelo, the catchphrase-uttering jokester; Raphael, the loose-cannon; Leonardo, the serious leader; Donatello, the nerd), but revises their backstory somewhat. They still started life as four ordinary baby turtles who wound up getting hit with an experimental mutagen that transformed them into humanoids. But this time, their journalist gal-pal April O’Neil (Megan Fox) turns out to have been the young daughter of the now-dead scientist who was working on the turtles before their lab was torched. In other words, they were her turtles all along. (Why this young girl saved her pet turtles only to then dump them in the sewers is left unexplained.) The Turtles’ mortal enemies, the Foot Clan, led by the evil Master Shredder, are here, too, only this time, the Foot is in cahoots with a billionaire scientist/industrialist named Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) to unleash a deadly toxin on New York City. Why does Sacks want to do this? So he can then unleash an antidote to said toxin and thus become … rich. (Have I mentioned that he’s a billionaire industrialist who already owns his own giant tower in the middle of Times Square? Also, I’m pretty sure someone would catch footage of the deadly toxin spewing out of a spire bearing Sacks’s name. Ah, but details …)
There are plenty of opportunities for parody here; indeed, the slipshod nature of the story practically demands it. But Liebesman and his screenwriters play it mostly straight, preferring to go to town with the familiar pseudofluid, CGI-heavy, speed-ramped action sequences. They also manage to work in approximately 576 push-ins on Megan Fox’s immaculately bewildered face and 893 references to how hot Megan Fox looks, because Michael Bay. Somewhere along the way, you might find yourself wondering who the audience for this movie is. Little kids love the Turtles, but this doesn’t exactly feel like a movie for little kids. Teenagers may appreciate the mixture of straight action mixed with wisecracks, not to mention the presence of Ms. Fox, but would today’s teenagers even be caught dead seeing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie? I suppose the same could have been said of Transformers before Bay got ahold of it, so who knows?
Some inspired, entertaining moments do occasionally shine through: The film’s big action setpiece, a chase down the side of a snowy mountain, involving the Turtles, the sinister Foot Soldiers, a bunch of jeeps, April, her cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett), and a giant runaway truck, is loaded with inventive touches, not the least because the scenario is so different from the usual car chase and/or battle across the rooftops or whatever. And some of the funny bits work — a scene with the Turtles waiting in an elevator, beatboxing, for example, is charming. But none of the gags feel organic; they feel like attempts to enliven an otherwise anonymous action flick. And in an era in which action movies have become more tongue-in-cheek than ever, how ironic that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turns out to be the one that’s not silly enough.