Breathe a little easier, TMNT fans. Reports of what Michael Bay had planned for your heroes in a half shell turned out be greatly exaggerated. As the title of this sleekly proficient reboot confirms, the Ninja Turtles are still teenagers and still mutants. They come from the sewer (not space), they answer to a talking-rat sensei, and when they’re hungry, they reach for a slice of delivery-chain, product-placement pizza. Leonardo still leads. Donatello still does machines. Raphael remains cool, but also crude. And Michelangelo’s desire to party hasn’t diminished in the slightest. The Turtles are, in other words, basically as they’ve always been, at least since leaping off the pages of a gritty black-and-white comic book and onto several warehouses worth of colorful tie-in merchandise.
What the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lacks is not fidelity, but a spirit of genuine boyish fun—the sense that anyone involved saw more than a very specific shade of green in the freshly digital scales of these 30-year-old characters. To be fair, the Turtles have long doubled as corporate mascots, groomed for the pop-culture zeitgeist by a toy company that saw mass appeal in their adolescent attitude. It’s that legacy of profits that doubtlessly drew Bay to their vacant dojo. Instead of stepping behind the camera, as he has with every installment of the Transformers franchise, the Hollywood hitmaker has passed directing duties to one of his disciples, Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles, Wrath Of The Titans). The results aren’t as painful as, say, Dark Of The Moon, but they are completely perfunctory. Like the slick horror remakes the film’s production company, Platinum Dunes, otherwise occupies itself with, Ninja Turtles exists for the sole purpose of squeezing a few more drops of milk out of an old cash cow.
At least the Turtles themselves look cool, strange new nostrils and all. Played this time by 1s and 0s instead of guys in uncomfortable Jim Henson costumes, the crime-fighting creatures now hulk over their puny human co-stars, while moving with the agile, fluid grace one might expect from, well, ninjas. There are multiple benefits to this digital makeover. The action scenes, like a kinetic downhill chase through a winter wonderland, are cartoonish in the right way—privileging speed and energy over the laws of physics. The CGI also allows for a remarkably sophisticated range of facial expression, each Turtle conveying his one and only character trait—responsibility, intellectual curiosity, hotheadedness, goofball irreverence—through the twitch of imaginary muscles. (The voice work, alas, is not as memorable, though Alan Ritchson lends Raphael a distinctly New Yawk belligerence.)
Much less charismatic are said human co-stars, granted more screen time than their underwritten roles merit. Ninja Turtles filters its rote origin-story beats—the reintroduction of the fantastic four, the retelling of their slightly tweaked backstory—through the exploits of plucky reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox, back in Bay’s sandbox after being booted from the Transformers series). O’Neil has no personality, just generic spunk, and most of the other characters chauvinistically dismiss her, undress her with their eyes, or both. (In a creeper contest, Will Arnett’s comic-relief cameraman is edged out by Michelangelo, who calls dibs on his new mammal crush.) Meanwhile, William Fichtner phones in his performance as an oily bigwig scientist, while the Turtles’ formidable arch-rival, metal-clad samurai The Shredder, seems to have been subbed in from a side-scrolling arcade game.
The original Turtles film, released in the prehistoric past of 1990, wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. But it had a certain hokey charm, perhaps even for the adults in the audience; there was something endearingly strange about watching guys in rubber reptile suits crack wise and throw punches against a semi-seedy Manhattan backdrop. New York has changed in the last 25 years, much of its danger and grimy “flavor” scrubbed away during the city’s crime clean-up initiative. This franchise relaunch, set in a more polished Big Apple, is Ninja Turtles for the post-Giuliani era—a blockbuster as flashy and inoffensive as a Times Square billboard. Kids in attendance may be suitably stimulated, while their millennial parents wonder how something so superficially familiar could fail to give them a nostalgic buzz. Bay may have kept the Turtles terrestrial, but their appeal will feel pretty alien to anyone who grew up saying “cowabunga” without irony.