By Bruce Ingram/For Sun-Times Media
Considering that they basically began as a joke back in 1984, with a limited-edition comic book intended to spoof superhero trends at the time, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around for a long, long time. Too long to be killed off by something merely half-bad, like this basically brainless but intermittently adrenalizing, mostly-just-for-kids reboot.
After a 10-year Saturday-morning cartoon series, a handful of feature-length spinoffs and a Nickelodeon animated series, producer Michael “Transformers” Bay has gotten hold of the turtles. And it shows, both in this film’s over-reliance on super-pumped CGI action scenes and in its appreciation of Megan Fox’s backside — presented for gratuitous ogling at one point during a high-speed chase. Fox plays reporter April O’Neill, hoping to break into the hard news big-time by getting the scoop on the Foot Clan, an intimidating criminal organization (despite its entirely unintimidating name) that has been terrorizing New York.
She gets more of a scoop than she hoped for, however, when she witnesses Foot Clan being trounced by a quartet of 6-foot-tall ninja-skilled turtles who are as handy with one-liners as they are with bow staffs and nunchakus. And her story status rises when she realizes Leonardo (moves by Pete Ploszek, voice by Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) were once her childhood pets. And that she is responsible for releasing the future heroes and their ninja-master-to-be, Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), into the New York sewer system after the Foot Clan burned down the lab where her murdered scientist father, along with billionaire industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner, looking appropriately villainous), had been injecting them with ultra-powerful mutato-juice.
Tying April into the Ninja Turtles’ backstory in that way is a significant change, but not one that seems likely to make the heads of devoted fans explode — unlike Bay’s earlier plan to rethink the teenage terrapins as aliens. The only thing that stands out as a major change in the 2014 turtles is the way they’ve been beefed up with motion-capture technology and CGI. It’s miraculous that the muscles on these bad boys didn’t bust open their shells. By comparison, Jim Henson’s 1990s costumed incarnations look like, well, muppets.
While we’re on the subject of bigger and badder, the new Master Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), with his robot-samurai armor and his rocket-propelled arsenal of Ginsu knives, is a Benihana nightmare come to life.
Aside from that, though, it’s pretty much business as usual: one personality trait per turtle (with the most screen time for party-dude Michelangelo), lots of wisecracks, plenty of thin-crust product placement (Pizza Hut this time around), and even a last-minute cowabunga. And, of course, tons of ninja-turtle combat action, amped up by director Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle Los Angeles”) in Bay’s patented more-is-more style. There’s even one crazy, extended chase involving Foot Clan vehicles, our heroes and an 18-wheeler all sliding down a snowy mountainside that makes turtle power start to seem infectious again.
It doesn’t last long, but it shows (along with a few other isolated scenes like the turtles beat-boxing during a long elevator ride) that there’s still enough fun built into the concept to keep it crawling onward.