As I walked out of the theater where I saw "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in its latest big-screen incarnation, I smiled as I saw two kids, maybe six, clearly amped up and delighted by the film, aiming mock spin-kicks and playful karate chops at each other. I was immediately caught up in two contradictory thoughts: I was glad, sincerely, that those two youths had clearly been engaged by the film and caught up in the spirit of the action and characters. At the same time, I was even more glad that those two hopped-up youths were not, in any way, shape, or form, my responsibility.
This latest big-screen version of '80s franchise "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" comes to us as an alliance between producer Michael Bay -- the man who's done more to define and damage big-screen action than any other -- and Nickelodeon, the kid's programming behemoth who, not coincidentally, re-ran the original animated series and its other spin-offs ad nauseam to earn ad revenue and then acquired global rights to the brand in 2012. (Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures and Film.com are all owned by Viacom.)
The TMNT were originally created as a parody of trends in '80s comics -- a field then crowded with mutants, angsty adolescents and grim, dark martial-arts violence. And yet kids loved the interplay between the four turtles and loved their brotherhood, and what was a one-time only parody became a multi-tentacled multi-media franchise, with this the latest salvo in a long line of moneymakers.
Megan Fox -- previously trained in blankly staring at special effects that aren't really there by Bay himself -- is April O'Neil, a plucky reporter tired of puff pieces who wants to break the story about the Foot gang, a group of criminals terrorizing New York; her investigation offers proof of a vigilante -- or vigilantes -- fighting the Foot gang's machinations from hiding. The vigilantes are of course the Turtles -- sword-wielding leader Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), gruff muscleman Raphael (Alan Ritchson), skateboarding goofball Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and bespectacled tech-guy Donatello (Jeremy Howard).
One of the strangest things about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is how it plays remarkably like every other recent big-money, big-action, big-studio summer film -- urban destruction, the team gelling as part of the journey, a climax involving a deadly whatsit on top of a tall building -- but with, you know, turtles. The Turtles themselves are brought to life by a combination of practical effects, motion capture, CGI and money, and director Jonathan Liebsman ("Battle: Los Angeles") has an adequate handle on how to use them in a group of action sequences that feel like they were copy-and-pasted in from other films -- Subway fight! Downhill snowy chase! A battle against the clock on top of a skyscraper!
The most uneasy aspect of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is how incredibly violent it is for a PG-13 movie that, as evidenced by my karate-chopping fans after the film, is going to be seen by a much younger audience. There are edged weapons galore: at one point three of the Turtles have their blood pumped out of them by bad guy William Fichtner like very large Peking Ducks; an underling is killed with poison gas, and we see holes eaten in his skin as he lies there twitching. The sexism in it -- with a joke from one of the Turtles about how April is "so hot she makes my shell get tight" and a deliberate shot of Fox's posterior as she leans out a car window -- is fairly disquieting as well. There's also product placement galore, just in case you think your kids aren't getting enough advertising aimed at them.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is designed to fill a pipeline, a matter of volume more than quality. It's bland, familiar, lazy and drunk on a deadly mix of nostalgia and unthinking adrenaline. It's a property made to mock 1980's pop culture that, in 2014, doesn't really connect to anything other than itself. It's made by people who don't care about your kids as humans, just as current and future consumers. It wastes the comedic abilities of Will Arnett as a horny, hangdog cameraman crushing on Fox's April O'Neil. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" isn't a movie; it's a brand re-launch that's going to satisfy stockholders far more than it's going to entertain the people who paid to watch it.
SCORE: 3.0 / 10