I can't think of a recent blockbuster that's been raked across the coals as much as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" before its official release date. First, they were going to be aliens, then they were turtles again, then came the supposed whitewashing of the normally Asian Shredder character (long story short, he's still Asian). And that's not even considering the automatic scorn earned for being a product of Michael Bay, or rather his production company Platinum Dunes. Now that all the dust has settled, is this third reboot of the heroes in a half-shell, counting the 2007 animated film and the recent Nickelodeon show, good enough to silence the haters and breathe some new life into the franchise? No. No it's not.
If last week's "Guardians of the Galaxy" was a richly textured yet still sinful tasting bacon egg and cheese croissant, Jonathan Liebsmann's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is an Egg McMuffin; a disposable, but filling blockbuster whose sporadic moments of fun are bogged down by an insistence on connecting all the pieces. And no ketchup. Reporter April O'Neil stumbles across the story of a lifetime when she realized that the terrorist organization known as The Foot is attempting a biological takeover of New York City, until four vigilantes make themselves known. Four genetically enhanced turtles, leader Leonardo, renegade Raphael, tech kid Donatello, and teenage character pastiche Michelangelo, are trained in the martial arts by their surrogate father Splinter, and after coming across them during a successful attack on The Foot, O'Neil decides to help them take down scientist Eric Sacks (what a name!), a colleague of her dead father's who is spearheading the operation.
Here's how they manage to mess that up; the screenplay, penned by Josh Applebaum, André Nemac, and Evan Daugherty, is copying straight out of the play book of "The Amazing Spider-Man," in the fact that the everything in the story is connected yet none of it makes any sense. No I won't tell you how, but know that they manage to tie every facet of the turtles' and Splinter's personality to April and Sacks. Literally every last detail known of the Turtles as characters is tied to them. Are story elements not allowed to be coincidental anymore? You're going to tell me that every thread in the story about genetically modified super turtles and their rat master fighting a feudal Japanese cyborg with the New York reporter is just going to happen to be connected? This sort of destiny narrative has always been common in film before but has been making a huge comeback as of late, becoming the go-to crutch for every screenwriter to stamp confusing of unnecessary portions of a story with "because I said so."
It also completely undermines the general origin of the turtles. Aside from Michelangelo's creepy fascination with April and their trademark pizza craving, there's very little here convincing me these guys are teenagers. The fact that they're kids who are partially saddled with the responsibilities of their father Splinter and trying to cope with their adolescence and kick ass at the same time we all remember from the cartoon? That's the first part of the puzzle, the Teenage in the Mutant Ninja Turtles. That's not really present here and the story and the functionality of the characters suffers for it.
Beyond the densely packed yet still paper thin story, the cast leaves a lot to be desired. Megan Fox's over-sincere yet completely hollow performance as April O'Neil serves to remind why we haven't seen much of her since "Jennifer's Body." William Fictner phones in a generic evil scientist performance as Sacks that's nowhere near as interesting as the real Shredder on the sidelines whose face we never EVER see. And poor Whoopi Goldberg is a glorified cameo waiting for her check and her next substantive project.
What saves "Turtles" from being a waste of time, then? Well, the Turtles themselves. Even if it's hard to tell that they're teenagers, they've got distinctive looks and personality to spare, particularly Donatello and Mikey. Though for most kids in the audience, fan favorite may wind up being the red one Raphael, the brooding renegade bruiser of the bunch. He gets the most screen time and action set pieces, and Alan Ritchson gets some mileage out of the Batman shtick for a while. The action is also well choreographed and shot, utilizing some great mo-cap work on both Splinter and the Turtles. An a cappella music elevator scene near the end of the film is a highlight, a pure piece of popcorn fun and personality, and I wish the film had more of that.
Other than that, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is as disposable an August release as it looked in its trailer, a lazy kid-oriented action flick that confuses complicated with deep. You've seen a million movies like it in the past, and you'll still have air conditioning in your house once it's doomed to rotation on HBO sometime next year.
The film opens tomorrow, August 8, nationwide.