“Litter Stops Here” reads the sign that’s prominently displayed in front of April O’Neil (Megan Fox) at the beginning of an early setpiece in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the reboot of the Gen-Y-favorite franchise that spans films, video games, TV shows, and comic books. And in some ways, it’s true: trash stops on the big screen. In this case, however, that’s where the trash starts. No doubt, the people involved with this film might side with April’s cameraman (Will Arnett), who tries to convince her of the value of “froth” in news reporting, of making something fairly mindless that’s enjoyable to the masses. There’s nothing wrong with froth (or “candy,” as he says), but it has to be done well all the same. For myriad reasons, this new take on a quartet of mutated turtles who can take down faceless foes with the swiftest of ease is mostly uninspired, awkward, unfunny, and utterly charmless. It’s the very opposite of candy.
April is determined to break out of the doldrums of NYC TV news reporting, and decides that her meal ticket is the mysterious story of a vigilante group trying to fight back against the feared Foot Clan group of criminals. Of course, as most everyone watching the film knows, the group isn’t human at all, despite having good, heroic intentions. No, they’re four mutated and powerful turtles: Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville, for some reason), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), who’ve been warned by their master and surrogate father Splinter (Tony Shalhoub, also for some reason) to avoid leaving the sewers in case they’re found out by presumably (and logically) confused masses. But the turtles can’t stand by while injustice is committed, crimes are done, and so forth. So, with April’s help, they end up facing their great nemesis, Shredder, who’s being aided by a greedy industrialist (William Fichtner) with ties to April’s past.
The script, by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty, doesn’t waste much time acknowledging the silliness inherent in the entire Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mythology, if such a thing truly exists. When Arnett’s character asks April if the turtles are aliens, she responds curtly, “No, that’s stupid.” (This is a weird in-joke referencing the early period when this film’s producer, Michael Bay, said the turtles would now be aliens instead of mutants. And, as we all know, alien turtles who like Pizza Hut is far more ridiculous than mutated turtles who appreciate the same.) Roughly half of the film transpires before any human aside from April even admits the possibility that her theories aren’t total bull. While it’s nice that the film pays lip service to the concept being dumb, all of the jokes—and there are many of them, all at April’s expense—simply make the whole affair incredibly, and obnoxiously, self-conscious. Yes, the premise of mutated turtles who are ninjas and going through puberty is silly, but you might as well own the silliness.
Perhaps the real issue is that parts of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are intentionally silly, while others are taken as seriously as the brooding in a Christopher Nolan Batman movie. (The silly parts, as luck would have it, are heavy with pop-culture references, such as a few to Christian Bale’s take on the Caped Crusader. Plus, references to Lost, which is always super-timely. Remember Lost? That show about the island and the hatch and…never mind.) April may be in over her head, but the turtles too often are crafted as serious heroes, not a bunch of chuckleheads who happen to be gifted with super-strength. The action sequences, also, seem to be of a piece with other CGI-heavy blockbusters. One, in particular, quotes heavily from the snowbound sequence of Inception, at least when director Jonathan Liebesman isn’t instructing his cinematographer to spin the camera 360 degrees around the characters, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what’s going on or why anyone should care.
The CG itself is an unpleasant addition to the series. The original series of 90s-era films may not be that impressive separate from childhood nostalgia, but the tactile quality of the turtles, as created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, is vastly superior to the computer-generated editions of the turtles. Too often, the turtles’ CG-ed stretchy faces are reminiscent of the unpleasant-looking Martians from Disney’s execrable Mars Needs Moms, never a welcome comparison. In general, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dull and mostly lifeless affair. (Arnett is the sole bright spot, even as it’s mildly depressing to watch him play a variation on Gob Bluth in his fruitless attempts to impress the oblivious April.) Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo are at the center of a dumb and ridiculous concept; the more this movie acknowledges that fact, the more it reveals its own lack of confidence in the project.