"Ninja Turtles" Reboot Worth Its Weight In Junk Food

For good or ill, Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is thoroughly a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film – silly, colorful, and trivial to its core. Audiences averse to the very idea of a quartet of anthropomorphic reptiles with a taste for pizza, a penchant for martial arts, and a proclivity for surfer-speak need not apply. More controversially, dyed-in-the-wool Turtles fans – and there are plenty – might be well served to steer clear, as screenwriters Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec (of the wonderfully taut “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) and Evan Daugherty have taken significant liberties with the source material.

But what exactly is the source material, anyway? The widely unread comic books that launched the franchise in the mid 80s? The massively popular animated television series and accompanying toy line that followed? The live-action film trilogy that made box office hay in the early 90s? In the end, it hardly matters. The Turtles are an irreverent concept that became all the more disposable when they evolved into an unlikely merchandising behemoth. Anyone disappointed by what one of its many forms isn’t is missing the point entirely.

Director Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle: Los Angeles”) has led a troubled career to date, his work sorely lacking in color and personality. Leave it to a sewer-raised band of talking turtles to inject some much-needed life into his skilled but bland visual style. Famously named after Italian Renaissance painters, the Turtles have been brought to life here by a seamless mix of motion-capture performance, CGI, and voice acting – Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Leonardo (mo-cap by Pete Ploszek, voice by Johnny Knoxville).

Rounding out the computer-generated slice of the cast is the Turtles’ sensei and father figure – and giant rodent – Master Splinter (performed by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub). As told in an animated prologue, Splinter has raised the Turtles in the New York City sewer system from infancy, waiting for the proper time to unleash his hard-shelled brood on the malevolent Foot Clan and its evil, heavily armored leader, Shredder. When our inquisitive, pop culture-hungry heroes finally make their escape, they inevitably cross paths with the one human credulous enough to take them at face value.

Megan Fox headlines capably as April O’Neil, fledgling reporter and Turtle ally, showing growth as a performer since her “Transformers” days. Now re-united with her previously estranged “Transformers” director, Michael Bay (producer here), it’s clearer than ever that she’s no Meryl Steep, but gifted enough to handle a surprisingly robust female role in a male-oriented summer action pic. Followed around aimlessly by her hound dog of a cameraman (Will Arnett), April is the spark that lights the story’s fuse, and Fox’s performance is up to task.

Liebesman and his screenwriters have changed the Turtles’ origins – and their relationship to April – pretty drastically, but for the better. For the first time, there’s a modicum of emotional resonance to the Turtles’ story beyond brotherly love, and while those same changes are likely to drive fans up a wall, they’re well worth it. Yes, said nips and tucks are communicated in the form of infinitely wacky exposition, but who better to sell nonsensical dialogue than William Fichtner (“The Dark Knight”)? He’s on hand as ethically ambiguous scientist Eric Sacks, a former friend and colleague of April’s late father.

Moreover, the story alterations are what allow the picture to hit all three of its primary targets – kids, casual Turtles fans looking for a dose of nostalgia, and action junkies. The film absolutely delivers on all three fronts, its product placement effortlessly evoking the franchise’s weirdly endearing corporate grandstanding, its light sense of humor allowing for some easy chuckles, and its frantic final act providing for one of the year’s best action sequences. A chase scene that follows the Turtles careening down a snow-covered mountain is nothing short of magnificent, entirely blurring the line between practical and special effects.

Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is as critically bulletproof as its title characters are literally bulletproof, being just as good as it needs to be. Of course, diehard Turtle fans will have problems – loath to acknowledge that the Turtles could be anything but what they remember from their childhood – but the bulk of casual fans won’t care. And this film is for them. As a bona fide 90-minute advertisement meant to keep a share of old fans while bringing in new ones, the film is a success, doing just enough to keep the brand name alive and kicking for at least one more generation.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 8, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Screenwriter: Josh Appelbaum, Andrew Nemec, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, John Fusco
Starring: Megan Fox, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Noel Fisher, Will Arnett, Danny Woodburn, William Fichtner, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)