Not all that long into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jonathan Liebesman’s reboot of the early 1990s comics-cartoon phenomenon created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) has a conversation with her cameraman-producer, Vernon (Will Arnett), about entertainment. Vernon defends what he calls “froth,” the kind of mindless eye-candy “reporting” that April and he do for New York’s Channel 6 News (their most popular shtick involves April bouncing on a trampoline). The scene works as the film’s calling card, an invitation to not take a movie about genetically modified reptiles who are master martial artists and live with a wise rat-sensei that seriously. And just as Fox’s character defies Vernon’s reasonable philosophy, so does Liebesman’s film continuously and bizarrely strive for a sense of realism that severely dilutes the imaginative core of the universe Laird and Eastman created.
This begins with the photorealistic design of the turtles, sporting lips, nostrils, and more lifelike faces. Truth be told, our heroes end up resembling nothing so much as a gaggle of jacked Shreks with Kevlar shells strapped to their backs. Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) looks downright unsettling with eight-ball-black eyes and stringy facial hair, which is even more unfortunate given that he’s the film’s calm moral center, even as he bribes YouTube-obsessed Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) with a “99-cheese” Pizza Hut pie. The designs are a wholly off-putting first step, and Liebesman, working from a script by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty, doesn’t handle the ensuing, uneasy balance between high-stakes, action-flick self-seriousness and pre-adolescent humor very well. Thus, the film never settles on an assured tone.
In terms of aesthetic, Liebesman borrows freely from producer Michael Bay’s playbook, 9/11-aping set pieces and all. The script doesn’t deal in the kind of crass racial stereotyping and sexism that are Bay’s stock and trade, but the talk remains familiarly clogged with backstory, most of which connects April’s late father to billionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), the origins of Splinter and the turtles, and the crime lord known as Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). This constant barrage of plot-point reiteration and exposition stalls out much of the listless present-day story, involving the kidnapping of Michelangelo, Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and a chemical attack on New York. These dull histories also make the emptiness and strict utility of Fox and Arnett’s characters all the more blatant. As the movie goes on, they become increasingly thinly veiled, shallowly realized proxies for the audience; April is so in awe of the turtles and the wreckage that follows them that she records nearly all of their escapades with her smartphone.
The action is scarce but largely serviceable, the final fight between the turtles and Shredder constituting the film’s one thrilling highlight. Elsewhere, Liebesman tepidly uses the same whirling, in-the-moment handicam fight imagery that’s become the status quo in mainstream action flicks. Stripped of the more objectionable elements of Bay’s oeuvre, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles renders itself totally unremarkable in its busy plainness, devoid of anything resembling character or creativity, with the notable exception of Fichtner’s reliable liveliness. For all the haranguing about family and brotherhood that the film preaches, primarily through the character of Raphael (Alan Ritchson), the emotional and historical binds that he shares with Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo are never successfully conveyed, unless Raph’s histrionic purge toward the end can be counted. Indeed, for a film about a family of independent, confident outsiders, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only leaves one with the dim afterglow of forced normalcy, of a film so overworked to ensure mass-market appeal that it loses the charming oddness and loose goofiness that has allowed these characters, and their “frothy” appeal, to endure.