In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Tom Buchanan's size as “cruel.” Before we meet the character, the narrative tells us that his physicality is brutish and unpleasant, undermining Buchanan's desire for others to bask in his own Übermensch status. The bodies and faces of the title characters in Jonathan Liebesman's nonsensical “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” can be described in a similar way. Their shoulders are blocky, their biceps bulging. It's unclear where their chests end and their heads begin. Just seeing them in motion feels oppressive.
Fortunately, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn't necessarily about the titular mutant turtles (insofar as it's about anything, which is doubtful). Instead, the film begins with intrepid reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) investigating a series of crimes leading back to a mysterious group known as the Foot Clan. While she's meant to cover insignificant stories, she instead drags along harried, horny cameraman Vernon (an intolerable Will Arnett) on wild goose chases so as to determine the connective thread between each heist and every criminal activity. At one point, Vernon stops her to extoll the virtues of her lightweight reporting as “foam” in a speech subtextually underlining why movies like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” exist. You're making a mass-market blockbuster for kids, guys. No need to be defensive about it.
O'Neil soon learns that several of the crimes are being stopped by a mysterious crew in the shadows that she calls “the vigilantes.” After a couple of incidents where she's in the right place and the right time, she's able to follow the shadowy figures and discover that they're in fact six foot tall turtles who practice martial arts and get involved in stopping militarized street gangs because... it's not clear why, only that they're sneaking away from their master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub, impersonating John Hurt) to do so. Diehard 'Turtles' fans will just accept that there's a rivalry between the Turtles and the Foot Clan, though viewers unfamiliar with the the franchise might leave the film wondering exactly why.
From that point on, the film, produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production shingle, opts for “mythology” and “world building” over plot. We find out that the Foot Clan is under the rule of a villain named Shredder, who we soon see is more or less a set of steak knives. Together with businessman Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), the Clan is behind a biological warfare scheme that would allow them to hold New York City hostage. Sachs is a slick businessman raised in Japan who has pioneered studies in the field of genetics —why he can't actually just be Shredder or the primary antagonist for story purposes is a mystery. Sachs is introduced as an intriguing media personality who clearly controls a large block of the city's infrastructure, while Shredder is an ominous head boss in the shadows. By the film's end, the Shredder is a menace in a giant free-for-all brawl, while Sachs is reduced to firing a gun and screaming threats. This could have made a little more sense.
But sense is overrated, right? The film's highlights (and there are some, which is surprising considering Liebesman's filmography) occur when the action takes over. The final brawl on top of a skyscraper benefits from several helicopter shots allowing us to fully see the combatants in motion. An earlier battle in a sewer is well-lit, and benefits from some creative CGI choreography. And a fight sequence occurring while the Turtles are sliding down a snowy mountain lasts a good five to ten minutes and completely, gleefully gives up on gravity and logic altogether. The camera (or computer?) follows the Turtles as they boomerang around, several sliding vehicles in midair and in the snow, underneath falling trucks, over jeeps and through trees. There are little touches here and there, like team leader Leonardo using his swords as skis, that show wit and invention.
You do feel a little bad for Ms. Fox. As she slowly loses grip of the film to the heroes in a half-shell, she becomes marginalized, and you feel every unwanted sexual advance, every uncomfortable come-on, and every brutal threat that Fox surely has undergone through most of her life. There's not a single scene where someone's not trying to stick something inside this woman: her moments with the Turtles are especially uncomfortable, as they turn thuggish, crowding the frame with their physiques and forcing Fox to shrink. Every other line out of Michelangelo's mouth references bestiality. It's ultimately innocuous – no one calls her a “bitch” like they did in the “Transformers” films. But at this point, this sort of thing is beneath even her.
It can't be overstated what kind of a marvel these Turtles are onscreen, however. As crude and unpleasant as their design might be, they feel like living, breathing beings, not special effects. Liebesman's camera rarely slows down, but when it does, you can watch these beasts breathe, sigh, and chit-chat. Facially, they haven't gone beyond the DreamWorks Animation smirk, but that's to be expected, as they are underdeveloped and possibly malnourished turtles. A late moment finds the Turtles riding an elevator in mid-battle, breaking a bit of tension as they slowly improv a scatting/rapping session. If you're a child, or a particularly undemanding adult with an inexplicable weakness for fluke popular culture of the 1980s, you'll be delighted. [C-]