If nothing else, Paramount’s attempt at a bigscreen “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot should make for a fascinating case study in the power of fan outrage. Following the online uproar over their proposed deviations from the original material, among them a shortened title (“Ninja Turtles”) and a bizarre alien-planet backstory, producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman have delivered a back-to-basics origin saga that is neither a particularly good movie nor the pop-cultural travesty that some were dreading. Much slicker-looking but less endearing than its ’90s live-action predecessors, the film manifests all the usual attributes of a Bay production — chaotic action, crass side jokes, visual-effects overkill, Megan Fox — but is nowhere near “Transformers”-level off-putting. It should be a pretty easy shell to audiences worldwide.
Conceived in the ’80s as a good-natured spoof of superhero mythologies by comicbook artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, those crime-fighting chelonians known as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael have proven surprisingly resilient over the years: As the box office success of Warners’ 2007 animated feature “TMNT” demonstrated (before Viacom acquired the property in 2009), even a middling, downbeat Turtles vehicle could appeal to a new generation of young fans while maintaining a surprisingly strong hold on nostalgic adults. Since then, Nickelodeon’s new CG-animated series has become a big hit, which bodes well for this new live-action, motion-capture-enhanced enterprise, even if Paramount has had to weather no shortage of creative issues and production delays in the meantime.
Along the way, an executive decision was clearly made to play it safe, which in this case also means playing it silly. In keeping with the series’ general lightness of spirit, this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” runs counter to the gloomy, serious-minded tenor of so many recent superhero pictures, and it’s not afraid to mock itself or the filmmakers in charge. (“Aliens? No, that’s stupid,” Fox notes while recapping the plot for an incredulous listener.) That breezy, self-deprecating tone, however, never really translates into an infectious sense of wit or fun, let alone the sort of unabashed, unironic enthusiasm for the material you get from a geek showman like Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi. Liebesman, a cheerful demolition maestro (“Battle: Los Angeles,” “Wrath of the Titans”) who wields the camera like a blunt instrument, isn’t that sort of director, and the dull-witted screenplay, cobbled together by a trio of writers, wouldn’t reward his instincts even if he had them.
As if to allay viewer fears at the outset, the film kicks off with an animated prologue that dutifully explains how our four half-shelled heroes grew out of a wonky lab experiment (later revealed to involve a potentially life-saving mutagen), and then took up secret residence in the tunnels of the New York sewer system. Several years later, a crime wave is in full force in the city, led by a walking Cutco display called the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his massive Foot Clan, though they’ve started to get their asses whupped by a stealthy troupe of martial-arts-savvy vigilantes.
As enterprising young TV news reporter April O’Neil (Fox) soon discovers, those vigilantes are none other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — calm, disciplined Leonardo (played by Pete Ploszek, and voiced, with no added benefits, by Johnny Knoxville), laid-back Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), nerdy Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and hot-headed Raphael (Alan Ritchson). Although their wise rodent mentor, Splinter (Danny Woodburn), warns them against showing themselves above ground, these bickering bros can’t help fighting the good fight, any more than they can curb their raging pizza addiction or their ’80s surfer-dude parlance, which duly includes terms like “gnarly” and “cowabunga” (but not, sadly, “turtle power”).
April’s attempts to break the story get her laughed out of the newsroom, though it’s unclear why she doesn’t just prove her findings by showing her editor (Whoopi Goldberg) the photo she took of the Turtles on her camera phone. For that matter, it’s unclear why a nice man would deliberately start a deadly fire with his young daughter in the vicinity, or why an adrenaline overdose would serve as an effective cure for severe blood loss, to cite some puzzling later developments. But this is a mid-August blockbuster, not a hematology lesson, and so you might just as well take issue with the notion of an overgrown rat teaching himself martial arts from a conveniently discarded ninjutsu manual, or the even more whopping coincidence regarding April’s mysterious past connection to the Turtles and the scientist (William Fichtner, looking suspiciously William Fichtner-esque) who helped create them. Imagine if the Seven Dwarfs had once been Snow White’s childhood pets and you’ll have an idea of how ludicrous this particular conceit is.
There’s no point in quibbling with any of this, any more than there’s any point in trying to figure out what’s going on during a long, ridiculous and pretty enjoyable action sequence involving a truck, a few cars, several firearms, some snarky comic relief (Will Arnett) and a steep, snow-covered mountainside. (Turtle shells, it turns out, make excellent skis.) As the movie approaches its debris-scattering rooftop climax, which looks especially vertiginous in post-conversion 3D, the Bayisms begin to manifest themselves ever more perniciously: Somehow, even under the most harrowing, life-and-death circumstances, someone will find a way to turn the conversation around to the subject of April’s derriere. The Turtles themselves may well have funnier, less chauvinistic things to say — well, except Michelangelo, who offers some unwanted insight into the nature of turtle arousal — but most of their speedily delivered dialogue is lost amid the cacophony of clanging swords and the noisy swells of Brian Tyler’s score.
Through it all, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Bay, Liebesman and company are hitting all the iconic beats of the franchise, but not investing them with the sort of cleverness, gravitas or feeling that would allow this movie (and presumably, the two sequels in store) to coast along on something other than fan loyalty. Part of that is due to the appearance of the Turtles themselves: For all the undeniable sophistication of Industrial Light & Magic’s motion-capture system — which required the actors to wear skin-hugging body suits and helmets equipped with tiny high-def cameras — the push toward a more photorealist design has led to strangely off-putting and unapproachable results. They may look more hulking, more grotesque and certainly more like the products of advanced genetic mutation, but they also lack a certain engaging, intangible quality that Jim Henson’s rubbery-looking ’90s creations, though of an inferior technological grade, had in abundance. You might as well call it soul, and without it, any deeper viewer connection to these Turtles remains firmly at bay.