MOVIE REVIEW : SHELL GAME : You've worn the T-shirt, played the video game and tasted the cereal. Now can you swallow the movie?

Movies adapted from comic books or strips have one great advantage: Their title characters are already stars, and they aren't tied up in package deals with CAA. But they have a disadvantage too: What's alive on the page can't always be made to live and breathe on the screen. Witness "Howard the Duck." Witness "Swamp Thing." Witness "Batman"--who was alive but seemed to have trouble breathing under that big stiff suit.

Now comes "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (citywide), based on a hot-selling comic that started as a simple spoof on "serious" martial arts comics and quickly grew into cult status and spawned a cottage industry. There are Ninja Turtle T-shirts, figurines, a cereal, a Nintendo game and now--inevitably--a Ninja Turtle movie.

It's a big, loud, frazzled movie, crammed with special effects and charging, nunchuka-waving Turtles: the Renaissance reptiles Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael. This ferocious four--drenched and mutated by a smashed vial of radioactive ick in the sewer and trained in martial arts by the similarly mutated giant rat, Splinter--are battlers on the half-shell. They're turtles with a mission; they're mean, green and full of spleen.

As a movie, "Ninja Turtles" would make a better cereal. It looks like it needs a little milk and mother-wit poured over it, something to make it snap, crackle and pop. Much of it takes place in the dark, in creepy alleys, on cluttered streets and in the sewers under New York, where the Turtles have their pizza-strewn hideaway. There's little sense of menace in this studio-bound sewer, though--no albino alligators or "Third Man" angles to scare us.

The movie lacks real personality. It's written (by veteran TV sitcom specialists Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen) like a celebrity roast and filmed like a horror pastiche. There's not much differentiation in the Turtles, though some have mysteriously picked up California "dude" argot and one--fix-it man Donatello--is recognizably voiced by Corey Feldman.

"Turtles" gets its plot partially from the original story by comic book creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, but it's been slicked up and banalized into the usual revenge saga. Wicked Oruku Sakai (James Saito), alias The Shredder, killed Splinter's master years ago. Now he terrorizes the city, with his underground army, The Foot and a mob of juvenile thieves.

Ironies abound: the feisty TV anchorwoman, April (Judith Hoag), attacked by Foot soldiers and saved by Ninjas, is employed by a shifty TV executive (Jay Patterson) whose son, Danny (Michael Turney) is one of the gang.

Since any hint of a liaison between April and the Turtles might seem out of bounds, another even more curious romantic interest has been supplied: Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, a weirdo long-haired free-lance crime-fighter who runs around in a hockey uniform, bashing people with his stick.

You might think a character like this should be locked up. Here he's projected as a cross between Matt Dillon, Wayne Gretzky and a hipster Lone Ranger. Every once in a while, when the screenwriters want to demonstrate urbane wit, they have April and Casey exchange insults.

Director Steve Barron is a rock video and fantasy specialist; he made the excellent "Money for Nothing" Dire Straits video. Yet there's not much visual style here; the electronic acrobatics can't overpower the movie's weak, shticky dialogue. And even though "Ninja Turtles" was produced by the Hong Kong company Golden Harvest, Barron doesn't get the style that might have worked--the wild, tongue-in-cheek zip and kinetic fury of the Hong Kong action movies.

"Ninja Turtles" is probably a monster success because of that great title, and because of the visual gag of furious snarling turtles--muscles rippling--hurtling through all Bruce Lee's moves. The idea is funny, but what makes it work is the graphic elaboration, not the stories.

What might seem the most insurmountable task of all--making four plausible chop-socky turtles and a shaman rat--is the only one that's been executed well in the film. Henson's animatronic puppet Turtles have a delightful range of expression and movement, screwing up their faces with the pliable whimsy of Kermit the Frog.

The movie itself is loud and frail, screaming in a vacuum. Children will certainly like the puppets and perhaps even the humor. Fans of the comic may be pleased that scraps of it remains. But "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (MPAA rated PG, despite hubba-hubba sexual patter) never rises above its marketing-hook origins. It's a product, a commodity, a toy tie-in, a trailer for the comics, an advertisement for the cereal. It's a naked sell. Without Jim Henson and his crew, it might as well have been "Cheerios: the Movie" or "The Mad Adventures of Captain Crunch."

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