'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles': Return of reptiles, cliches
I'm not going to complain that a film bearing the Nickelodeon Movies logo - the kiddie channel production company responsible for Harriet the Spy, Rugrats Go Wild, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie - features a grim scene of New Yorkers lined up at gunpoint on a subway platform, threatened with execution. Those sage souls who sit on the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board gave Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a PG-13, so the 6-year-olds in the audience have been duly warned.
After all, four giant genetically altered reptiles are going to come barreling down the tracks any minute now, wielding their samurai swords, their nunchuks, and a few not-so-snappy one-liners, to save the day.
An uninspired reboot of the jokey '90s film franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dark, shaky, standard-issue superhero pic - the kind of cliched, misfit crimefighters-versus-demented villains scenario that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird happily parodied when they came up with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books way back in the 1980s. The production values and computer imaging may not be up there in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 league (and the 3-D effects certainly aren't), but the Times Square battle zones, the thumping face-offs, the evil corporate masterminds are virtually interchangeable.
What does set this Jonathan Liebesman-directed dud apart is that, along with the usual business about a quartet of adolescent, anthropomorphic tortoises schooled in martial arts by a talking rat, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a tale of intrepid journalism. Like All the President's Men, the film shows how a dogged reporter can make a difference, toppling deranged kingpins with a notepad (and a smartphone).
The Woodward and Bernstein here is blue-eyed, long-legged Megan Fox, in the role of April O'Neil, a TV news correspondent who has just filed her interview with a celebrity fitness trainer. It's the first day of spring, and the report is absolutely essential. Whoopi Goldberg plays her boss.
Unlike the earlier films, April O'Neil is more than just a newswoman who becomes a friend to the talking terrapins. Turns out that as a child, the daughter of a brilliant genetic scientist, she kept four little box turtles as pets - giving them the names of the Renaissance artists Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. A fiery lab explosion later, April thought she had lost her hard-shelled pals forever. But no, they're alive, living in the sewers, eating pizza, listening to the latest hip-hop. The moment of April/mutated turtle revelation will make you weep.
Joining the series' standby baddie, Shredder (reimagined as Darth Vader crossed with a giant Swiss Army knife), is William Fichtner, typecast as the monomaniacal chief of a corporation with its own skyscraping HQ. Fichtner's Eric Sacks also has a connection to April in her youth.
In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all roads lead back to Ms. Fox.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. With Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.