Just a week ago, the movie industry gave us — and probably more to the point, gave itself — a useful reminder that not all superhero movies need to mimic the relentlessly grounded “Dark Knight” template. Half the time, “Guardians of the Galaxy” doesn’t sweat “realism” at all, and it’s all the better and more entertaining for it. Now comes “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — the franchise’s first feature since 2007’s animated “TMNT”— a 3-D live-action update that swings us right back to that same play-it-straight approach. (Relatively speaking, anyway — there’s no Vanilla Ice “Ninja Rap” throwback, and we only get a token “cowabunga,” but we’re still talking about terrarium pets morphed into pizza-snarfing do-gooders.)
Production notes conveniently reference the “inky black world besieged by evil” in the original cult comics produced by Northampton-bred artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. But the duo were goofing around. You get the feeling that producer Michael Bay and crew are actively trying to keep semi-serious nonsense flowing through their “Transformers”-calibrated product pipeline, and it shows in this one’s tedious, muddled vibe. This marks the first Turtles movie to earn a PG-13 rating – not exactly a selling point, assuming kids are still the target audience.
Megan Fox plays Turtles reporter pal April O’Neil, cast here as a newbie struggling to show cameraman Vern (Will Arnett, starving for funny lines) and their newsroom director (Whoopi Goldberg, just dropping by) that she’s more than just eye candy. (Maybe Fox’s early gig as Bay’s “Transformers” muse/pinup was just Method training.) Digging for a story on the nefarious Foot Clan and some mysterious vigilantes fighting them, she’s soon hitting Manhattan’s rooftops and sewer tunnels with our Renaissance-monikered heroes — Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard).
Turns out that April has a surprising past link to the Turtles and their rat sensei, Splinter (Danny Woodburn). It’s a connection that’s of great interest to a biotech magnate (William Fichtner) who was a colleague of April’s late scientist dad. And at the center of the web, naturally, is the Foot’s robo-samurai master, old Turtles comic and cartoon arch-nemesis Shredder (Tohoru Masamune).
Director Jonathan Liebesman (“Wrath of the Titans”) tosses heroes and villains into a fun, frenetic third-act plunge down a snowy mountainside, and there are some laughs in an elevator ride the Turtles idly take. Otherwise, the viewing ranges from competent to lifeless. The expected subterranean skirmishes drag on, and a skyscraper-set climax feels lifted straight from “The Amazing Spider-Man” (where it fizzled, too). The repartee, as ever, is weak. Even with all the extra layers of digital detail, it’s still tough to keep these four straight. And the CG characters’ slimy rendering and motion-capture expressiveness could go down with “The Polar Express” as a study in inadvertent, technologically misguided screen creepiness. Wackier would have been OK, guys — it’s the Ninja Turtles.