Director Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is not as good a movie as it thinks it is, but neither is it as terrible as one may expect. It’s just ‘there,’ the summer movie equivalent of ‘taking up space.’
The reboot’s script — from writers Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty — suffers from Christopher Nolan Syndrome: All of the film’s comic book-based elements have to be grounded in the ‘real world,’ often with layers of backstory. (Even one of the turtles’ weapons has an origin tale!)
The end result is a movie that contains more badly-written exposition than meaningful character interactions, but somehow managing to find the bare minimum of success when it comes to executing the fun and witty personalities of our heroes, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael.
But they are not our ‘in’ to their story. That role falls to April O’Neil (a serviceable Megan Fox), a struggling news reporter who says things like, “Four years of journalism school down the drain,” in a way that only reinforces how out of touch the writers are with the way people talk. April seeking to make her bones on a story about the FOOT Clan. In doing so, she encounters our half-shell heroes and not only befriends them, but also realizes that she — and her scientist father — had a hand in their origin.
Through a series of confusingly-written scenes that burden April with too much backstory, we learn that the Ninja Turtles were her pets as a young child, and that her father was shot and killed by the villainous Eric Sachs (a one-note William Fichtner) — but only after Papa O’Neil burned down his own lab while he and his daughter were in it.
From here, the movie auto-pilots its way through weightless, logic-less CG set pieces as Sachs and his Master, Shredder, scheme to unleash a deadly pathogen into New York City, one which the already-rich Sachs will make money on by providing the government with a cure — which he’ll derive somehow from the turtles’ blood.
“Ninja Turtles” is the type of movie where you can make a drinking game out of how many times characters say unconvincingly say the word “vigilante” in a way that sounds like they just discovered it for the first time, every time. It’s the type of movie where the villain keeps his villainous status hidden from the world only to hatch is plot from atop the very tall building with his name on it. (Still think you’re going to make millions off infecting the city with a super virus, Sachs?)
So, what does the movie get right? Not much.
When “Turtles” plays the nostalgia card — a nod at the cartoon’s theme song here, a reference to the “Coming Out of Our Shells” 1990s Music Tour there — it does so without being forced, which is refreshing considering so many of the film’s beats achieve the opposite. Fans will be pleased to finally see their beloved characters cut loose in action scenes, in ways that enjoyably harken back to the animated series. Many will debate the effectiveness of the character designs — especially the ridiculous too-muchness of Shredder’s costume — but no one can deny the joy experienced in watching the Turtles dispatch bad guys without previous live-action outings’ “man in suit” limitations. Their stand-out set piece involves a high-speed chase down a snow-covered mountain that, while lacking any real emotional stakes or coherent physical geography, succeeds in giving audiences action that they’ve never seen before.
And that’s where the film’s inventiveness stops and starts. The plot leaves little to surprise and even less to enjoy without the use of a flow chart to connect the various threads connecting everything in the present to everyone’s past. The story is so over-complicated, entire reels are devoted to wasting characters like Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) in the service of pushing over-complicated exposition.
The movie is obsessed with explaining how things work in a world dominated by sentient, talking turtles trained in the art of kick-punching. Its excessive amount of exposition saps what little fun there is to be found in what is, ultimately, a very expensive, very inert piece of cash-grab IP.
On the upside, somehow, the characters’ unique personalities — which fans know very well by now — manage to emerge relatively unscathed, though there is a frustrating lack of emotionally interplay between them. Almost halfway through the film, Raphael emerges as our primary character for some reason. His lone-wolf tendencies and friction with Leonardo become an issue the narrative must resolve, using the film’s heavy-handed themes of brotherhood and family. Which would be fine, if the film gave us any scenes that earned such an arc in the first place. It’s as if the filmmakers tried to give both the character and the audience something to invest in, but then decided to scrap it in favor of Pizza Hut product placement and more exposition, this time designed specifically to reveal why our turtles like pizza in the first place. (Finally, our long, national nightmare is over — we know the origin of their favorite food!)
Megan Fox arguably gives her best performance in a summer tentpole to date, but she’s still unable to quite nail the deadpan humor the character is often required to deliver. (In fact, several of the film’s jokes land with thuds. Or worse, eye rolls.) April, like Raph, is also saddled with a rough draft of a character arc, with equally underwhelming results. Her dream to be taken seriously as a journalist, which she announces repeatedly, is dropped in favor of an unconvincing and un-earned goal of accepting the turtles as her brothers. Not once do we see anything on-screen remotely hinting that April appreciates or understands her pets-turned-saviors in that way.
Of course, the bottom line remains that this consistent lack of narrative cohesion, this fundamental breakdown of screenplay basics, will mostly bother those forced to attend a screening because their pre-teen wanted to see the movie. And it’s children who will have the best time at “Ninja Turtles.”
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