There is a surprising amount of charisma lurking somewhere in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the bass-heavy and unwieldy reboot of the film series that began in 1990. Based on the comic book series of the same name by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, this 2014 action flick is directed by Jonathan Liebesman with production by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and Nickelodeon Movies.
The Bay touch is indeed strong with this one, as the clattering and hulking effects meld with a robotic sensibility that very nearly overwhelms anything authentic in sight. To its credit, Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles is admittedly frothy and “candy” for the eyes. But it lacks any sense of lightness, especially given the preposterousness of the scenario, and that proves to make the movie a touch on the heavy side.
Megan Fox stars as April O’Neil, a reporter in New York City. She’s tired of working on fluff pieces and is eagerly tracking the rise of the mysterious but lethal Foot Clan as a crime wave grips the metropolis. While down on the docks, she witnesses the Foot unloading something and then spots a shadowy vigilante that she can’t quite get a proper look at.
When the Foot Clan presses, they take hostages and the titular heroes arrive to save the day. This blows the doors wide open and April learns about the history of the four mutated turtles. Together with their master Splinter (Tony Shaloub), the turtles and April work to take down the evil Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his Foot Clan.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is at its best when it works as a send-up of well-worn superhero tropes, like when one of the turtles is made fun of for using his “Batman voice.” This deliberate stab at the darker side of comic book cinema would’ve landed with more impact had Liebesman’s own take not been so deliberately cumbersome.
Luckily, the turtles themselves are entertaining creations. While there are issues with their appearance, like their unnecessary hulking size, the characters are humorous and really do represent the teenaged side of things. Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) gets off some pretty entertaining wisecracks with his “whoa, dude” mystique, while Donatello (Jeremy Howard) happily plays it out as geek chic.
Then there’s Raphael (Alan Ritchson), noted mostly in other incarnations as being sarcastic and troubled. Here he is those things, but he also handles the perceptual heavy lifting. He hints at leaving the team in a plot strand that’s quickly abandoned and his sneering, fuming face is one of the best pure looks in the movie.
The biggest problem with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lies with the villains. Shredder is essentially a glorified Transformer from Bay’s universe, with a Swiss Army set of blades that spring from his constantly rotating limbs. There’s no humanity and Masamune’s efforts are narrowed to an early sequence that gives just a taste of what might have been.
Watching the turtles go toe-to-blade with whatever the hell Shredder is supposed to be is predictably a lot like watching robots clang around in Bay’s Transformers series and that’s a big problem. Despite the fact that the title characters have morphed to ridiculous size and gained ridiculous abilities, there was still something “small” about them that came through in their like-mindedness for martial arts.
In Liebesman’s mitts, anything small and idiosyncratic about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only appears as addendums. The interactions of the characters are fine, but most of the action – save for a striking sequence down a hoary cliff – lacks tension and excitement because it rings so damn false. This pewter methodology doesn’t seem at all appropriate for these heroes in a half shell.
And yet somehow Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles maintains a sure sense of fun, conceivably due to the amiability of the characters or to the good humour of Will Arnett’s compliant Vern Fenwick. It’s certainly not a good movie in the traditional sense, but it is almost cheekily watchable even as it misses the worthy “froth” it so manifestly aims for.