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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review: Uninspiring Pap Courtesy of Michael Bay

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is uninspiring pap targeted to a much younger people. And that's too bad.
WARNING: spoilers ahead
For someone who was just a little too old to buy into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they arrived in the 1990's, I found myself wondering if the newest incarnation would somehow appeal to me. Having never aligned myself with any particular Turtles camp, I could easily see another franchise being added to my 'To-Do List.' Then I read the credits, and three words fill me with dread: Producer. Michael. Bay.

Victims of a lab experiment gone wrong (or right?), four box turtles have morphed into six-foot muscle-bound ninjas, aided by their father and lab victim Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), who keeps them hidden from the public in the sewers under New York City. Michelangelo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Rafael (Alan Ritchson), and Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) are young and impetuous youths whose desire for combat is matched only for their love of pizza. They'll soon get their chance, as a crime wave hits the City courtesy of the venerable Foot Clan and led by their boss Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Meanwhile, fluff television reporter April O'Neal (Megan Fox) comes face to face with both combatants and learns that her history with The Turtles goes back to her youth. The two join forces with April's wise-cracking camera man Vern (Will Arnett) to unravel Shredder's plan and stop industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fitchner) from releasing a deadly toxin.

Having never seen the television series or the 90's feature films in 20 years, it's easy to see the cracks emerge early in this production, hoping that either nostalgia or laziness will prove to be forgiving. Although he didn't direct it, Bay's dirty fingers are all over this cookie jar: there's jokes that fall flat, action that's too close and hard to follow, and character development that's as thin a katana blade. But unlike the dense katana, the script by Andre Nemec and others wouldn't survive an onslaught of baby drool, which is what I started to feel during a particularly long outdoor sequence featuring a truck, some snow, and the Turtles learning to ski. Under normal circumstances such a mix should hold some interest, but Director Jonathan Liebesman gets too close to the action (Bay-style), throwing humans into unbelievable situations that should have ended their lives 12 times over, while the Turtles remark about how cool it is to snow as their lives are in danger. That's not what typical teenagers do, and the Turtles' exchanges here just muddy the waters even more.

For a series filled with self-deprecating humor and the ability to break the fourth wall, Turtles does very little to resurrect that sense of joy or innocence. There's no intelligence to the script, replaced with a combination of uninspiring dullness and the feeling that these are more associates than 'brother' turtles. There's only the barest of character development among them, just enough to know that they joke around, do funny dance moves, and love their pizza. That works if this was a weekly series that could later explore their relationships and deepen our appreciation of them, but here it's just not enough.

In addition, there are serious deviations from canon that I suppose long-time fans might not accept. Gone is the 'walking through goo' line, replaced with 'Hey, I rescued you after you were shot up with goo' plot, in which O'Neil is seen as a sort of sister to the Turtles. This messes with Shedder's backstory which in turn affects his discovery of Kung-fu, and so on. But this version of Turtles is clearly not aimed at long-time followers with a collection of toys on their shelves, a fact made more apparent with each iteration of these retcon productions.

The arrival of the Post-baby Fox has been well-documented, but the question has always been, why her? Not only is her tendency towards dividing a production well-documented, she's just not strong enough to pull off a deeper version of O'Neal. When she learns the real story behind her father's death, Fox doesn't do much more than shrug it off, unable or unwilling to avenger her loss with the murderer right in front of her. But there's also a strange softness to her face in most scenes, as if Liebesman was purposely trying to downplay her age. I'm a big fan of the body, but Fox the actress was clearly the wrong choice. Fitchner plays yet another thinly-developed baddie, whose intentions are never probed beyond skin deep. He comes across as no more than a middle-of-the-road madman bent on economic glory rather than harboring a deeper desire. Arnett is serviceable as Vernon, included here as a way to placate Turtles fans expecting plenty of easter eggs. You'll see several throughout, and working through that exercise might keep you from feeling the blahs about this one.

In the end, it's the lack of a soul and poor character development that ultimately kills Turtles. I failed to care any more for these motion-capture kids by the end, their love for Splinter no more deep than when it began. I realize we're talking about a Summer film here, but when I'm unable to tell the difference between Leonardo and Michelangelo 60 minutes into the movie, one must realize the folly of even trying. Content to shoot its wad now and deal with the mess later, this could have been a gateway to a much larger tale where the stakes could clearly be felt, rather those classic moments realized too soon.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might highly offend long-time fans, while 9-year-olds will laugh their way through their popcorn and sugary drink. When one looks at such disparate demographics, you realize precisely who this film is targeted towards, and why it might ultimately fail with such low standards. And in my book, that's a fail for a series with so much promise.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi action violence and has a runtime of 101 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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