Ignoring the Pauline admonition by taking up childish things instead of putting them aside worked for Michael Bay in the “Transformers” franchise, which turned a toy line into an even more profitable string of movies. So he’s gone to the same well with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a truly weird concept that started out in the early 1980s as an underground comic and morphed into a worldwide phenomenon, spawning more mainstream comics, TV shows both animated and live action, video games, movies (three live-action and one animated) and, of course, a line of action figures. After declining in popularity for awhile, the anthropomorphic tortoises were rebooted by Nickelodeon in a CGI series whose success obviously inspired Bay to do another big-screen treatment, this time on a much larger scale than the 1990s flicks but rather more prosaic than they were.
The new movie is essentially an origins episode that’s outsized in typical Bay fashion. Loud, frenetic and exhausting, it’s really too violent for younger children and too dumb for adults who aren’t driven by sheer nostalgia. But adolescents—especially the boys who have taken to the Nickelodeon series—will probably go cowabunga over it.
That’s the case even though in this incarnation Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, though voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) lack the surfer dude sensibility of yore. They retain, however, the basic “creation” premise of being genetic mutations raised in the New York sewers under the tutelage of anthropomorphic rat Splinter (Danny Woodburn, but voiced by Tony Shalhoub), their sensei in the martial arts and adoptive father. There is a tweak, however, in that their transformation is explained as the result of experimentation done by the scientist father of TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who was working alongside Eric Saks (William Fichtner) at the time of his death.
Sacks is now a big-time corporate leader spearheading the fight against a ninja-themed crime syndicate called the Foot Clan, which, April discovers, is behind the theft of dangerous chemicals from the docks. In investigating the heists, April spies the turtles, who are coming above ground as vigilantes despite warnings from Splinter to stay hidden, but she can’t sell such a fantastic story to her unimaginative editor (Whoopi Goldberg, looking a bit monstrous herself in 3D close-ups). Nonetheless she and her smitten driver Vernon (Will Arnett) get caught up in the heroes’ fight against the gang and their vicious leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), whose metallic samurai suit is outfitted with innumerable blades.
Frankly Shredder’s plot, which is revealed over time, is extremely silly, and it will lead to a final confrontation between him and the turtles atop a NYC skyscraper that’s quite reminiscent of the finale of the first Andrew Garfield “Spider-Man” movie. (And if you’re going to unmask a surprise villain in the middle of your picture, it’s probably best not to cast in the role an actor who has “bad guy” written all over his face from the first moment you see him.)
But more problematic than the basic inanity of the plot fashioned by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty is the level of violence that director Jonathan Liebesman, cinematographer Lula Carvalho, editors Joel Negron and Glen Scantlebury and the effects crew insert into the movie—in the various fight scenes, an extended chase down a snow-covered mountainside and the culminating face-off with Shredder. These are, quite frankly, staged with no less virulence than one finds in any R-rated action flick, and when in the finale one sees great chunks of debris falling on cars and pedestrians many stories below (though the camera cuts away just before they’re pulverized), you have to wonder just what audience they makers were aiming at. Of course, there’s a constant stream of jocular bickering among the turtles as they’re doing all their gymnastic moves and swordplay, but it doesn’t mitigate the carnage they’re engaged in.
As in any Bay product, the effects are naturally cutting-edge and seamlessly integrated into the live footage. The titular quartet, Splinter and Shredder—all presumably composites of motion-capture work and CGI—are well realized, though the result is more creepily naturalistic than was the case in the older movies and TV shows, and the many scenes of destruction will certainly satisfy viewers who are aficionados of such stuff. They’re accompanied by a suitably bombastic score by Brian Tyler, who also composed the music for this week’s other destructo-release “Into the Storm.” He must be becoming the go-to guy for mindless action movies.
The human actors fare less well. Fox is bland, though she does manage the physical demands of the role well enough, and Arnett and Fichtner provide what’s expected of them—jokey smarminess in the one case and oily connivance in the other, even if their work certainly doesn’t go beyond comic book level. Many of the other live performers get to wear masks, which in most cases must be deemed a blessing, though Minae Noji manages a menacing glare as Shredder’s hench-woman Karai.
Like “Transformers,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” will probably be a big hit and spawn sequels: its essentially unimaginative, pro forma approach to a wacko concept that practically cries out for wild, nutty treatment will probably prove just what the audience wants. Bay seems to understand that you’ll never go broke banking on the childish mentality of the modern moviegoing public.