- - Thursday, August 7, 2014

If anything was proved in last week’s release of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” — which broke box office records and is also one of the best-reviewed movies of the year — it is that silly pop-culture curiosities, dreamed up decades ago for the amusement of little kids, can be hugely satisfying successes if given sufficiently imaginative treatment.

What this week’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — based on an ‘80s and ‘90s-era toy, movie and cartoon line that drew from a sardonic comic-book series of the same name — proves is how wrong such projects can go when the wrong creative talent is at the helm.

To describe the principals behind the movie as creative talent, however, is probably too generous. Director Jonathan Liebesman, working under the supervision of “Transformers”-guru Michael Bay and from a screenplay by three different writers, has crafted a bland, wannabe-blockbuster that is not only incoherent but indifferent. It’s less a movie and more of a crassly produced product, one that doesn’t care about its audience, its characters or itself.

The apathy is particularly evident in the script’s near-refusal to engage with the absurdity of its premise. The exposition-heavy story begins by following April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a New York City TV reporter who wants to break out of doing fluff stories. She attempts to hunt down a band of vigilantes that has been fighting back against a local crime wave managed by a ninja master named Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) — a tall, bald cartoon villain who spends most of the movie in a suit of spiky, computer-generated armor.

Rather quickly, April discovers a band of man-sized mutant turtles, all proficient ninjas in their teenage years, who in a ludicrous and unnecessary contrivance just happen to be grown out of her childhood pets.

This is truly goofy material, the kind that a better movie might have had some real fun with. But Mr. Liebesman and his writers dish it out with all the creative joy of a high schooler plagiarizing an encyclopedia for a class paper.

Yes, the turtles themselves engage in some excruciatingly forced and unfunny comedic banter. It’s a giant exercise in missing the point. The humor isn’t supposed to come from the turtles being funny like stand-up comedians in a sitcom. It should come from the bizarre fact that they are giant, talking, teenaged turtles.

A few of the human characters do point out how weird this is, but mostly the movie treats the turtles with a kind of dutiful solemnity, though not with the dark seriousness of recent Batman films, an approach that might have worked here, given that the turtles are supposed to be avengers working the city streets at night.

Mr. Liebesman, the director of midbudget genre flicks “Battle Los Angeles” and “Wrath of the Titans,” shoots the action sequences in his usual chaotic, over-lit style, but without the delirious bombast Mr. Bay brought to the Transformers films. Mr. Liebesman, in contrast, has no confidence in his own imagery: There’s no rhythm to the sequences, no clarity to the geography, no sense to the shots. It all feels chopped up, as if the final cut of the movie was edited by Shredder.

He’s not helped by the awkward computer animation for the turtles, which attempts a kind of photorealism but ends up in a creepy no-man’s-land of unreality. There’s no life or personality to them, and none of the impressive physical wizardry of the earlier generation of live-action films, which relied on Jim Henson puppetry to create the Ninja Turtles.

Those earlier movies weren’t great. But they were endearing and full of wacky charm. That’s the real problem with the latest take on the Ninja Turtles: It’s not just bad. It’s boring and no fun.


TITLE: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Liebesman; screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty

RATING: PG-13 for senseless action

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes


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