Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ is a half-hearted shell game
The new adaptation of the comic book “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” directed by Jonathan Liebesman, often feels like some sort of corporate seminar in brand management. There is something half-hearted about the entire film, as if those behind it were involved not because they wanted to make it, not because they should make it, but just because they could.
Based on the comic first released in 1984 that had been made into a feature film in 1990, the new film is written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Evan Daugherty and produced by Michael Bay and his production company Platinum Dunes. The involvement of Bay and company may help explain the intrusive Nokia and Victoria’s Secret product placement as part of a package deal from the recent “Transformers” film, as well as the background billboard for the 2015 film “Project Almanac.”
The story opens with Megan Fox as a New York City TV news reporter who wants to work on the story of a burgeoning crime wave but is, instead, assigned to jump on a trampoline for a segment on exercise fads. It seems for a few brief moments as if the movie and Fox are commenting on the kinds of sexist roles made available to young actresses. When later the film lingers too long on her curvy backside, the implied auto-critique has been either forgotten or proved disconcertingly on point.
If it seems as if this review is taking its time getting to the large talking turtles who are teenagers and trained as ninjas, that’s because the film does too. Turns out that Fox’s character has a personal connection to the creatures, and so they join forces to fight a wealthy industrialist (William Fichtner) who plans to endanger New York in order to be the one to save it. (The less one dwells on the specifics, the better.)
Rather than hokey men in costumes, the four turtles — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo — are created using performance capture techniques not unlike what has been done with the animals in the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies. (Johnny Knoxville voices Leonardo while the anonymous actors who perform the roles voice the other turtles.) The turtles look lively and pretty lifelike, it must be said, but with no real-world correlation also more strange than anything else. Even though they are the title characters and the main attractions, the turtles often feel left in the background of their own movie.
The film’s high point is an action sequence set on a snowy mountain with the turtles improvising their shells as toboggans while fighting bad guys and swerving under and around an out-of-control big-rig tractor-trailer. There is a snap and specificity missing elsewhere, likely courtesy of Dan Bradley, who worked on the dazzling stunts in the “Bourne” pictures and is credited here as “snow unit director.”
The biggest problem with the movie is it can never quite decide who it’s for or why it exists. A moment where the Turtles’ rat-ninja mentor (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) is nearly killed by a villain is a bit intense for younger audiences. Comedians Abby Elliott and Taran Killam appear briefly, implying jokes for grown-ups left on the cutting-room floor, and Whoopi Goldberg also feels underused in her couple of scenes as Fox’s boss.
Not out-and-out terrible enough to be completely dismissed, while also not particularly memorable either, perhaps the truest summation of the film is to say simply that the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a movie that exists.
‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 1 hour and 41 minutes.
Playing: In wide release.
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