Dir: Jonathan Liebesman. US. 2014. 101mins

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Impersonal and derivative, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots the titular reptiles and decides in the process that they might as well just be Transformers with green skin and martial arts skills. Though the film is directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles, Wrath Of The Titans), the movie’s slick, disposable soul seems imported from producer Michael Bay, whose Transformers franchise trademarked the sort of lumbering, over-the-top action and juvenile humour that’s on full display here. 

Brought to life (somewhat) through motion-capture, the four reptiles have rather unpleasant, inexpressive faces, lacking the sweetness of the turtles from the 1990s films but also not looking particularly heroic or compelling.

Arriving in the US on August 8, this Paramount release hopes to bring back these unlikely turtle heroes to big-screen glory. In 1990, the original film grossed approximately $200m worldwide on a reported budget of around $14m, spawning two sequels. A 2007 animated effort from Warner Bros. collected only about $96m, but no doubt Paramount is banking on Bay’s involvement, not to mention the marquee value of Transformers star Megan Fox, for larger grosses. But with Guardians Of The Galaxy proving to be a major draw, these Turtles may not have the commercial muscle to find robust returns, although international and DVD markets could come to the rescue.

Based on the comic book created in the early 1980s by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles quickly establishes the backstory of its iconic characters. Leonardo (played by Pete Ploszek, but voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) were ordinary turtles involved in a scientific experiment who mutated into sentient, speaking, upright creatures with a love for martial arts and pizza. Hiding in New York City’s sewers with their mutant rat sensei Splinter (played by Danny Woodburn, but voiced by Tony Shalhoub), the Turtles must defeat the evil Foot Clan and its leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), assisted in their mission by a plucky reporter, April O’Neil (Fox).

In the past, the Turtles’ appeal has been their lovable outcast status: These four oddballs are as insecure as typical teenagers, but because of their mutant strangeness, they’re even more outsiders, only having each other to rely on. Additionally, as the property’s title suggests, the material wielded a goofy, crowd-pleasing tone, delivering kung-fu fun while also acknowledging the grinning absurdity of the whole endeavour.

Regrettably, that inherently self-deprecating spirit has been mostly airbrushed away for this darker, more muscle-bound treatment. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still pays lip service to themes of family and belonging, and endless smart-ass quips fly from the characters’ mouths. (Will Arnett, playing April’s smug cameraman Vern, joins in on the glumly sarcastic one-liners.) But the playful attitude of previous Turtles movies is largely absent, replaced by a familiar brand of adrenalised action in which everything — emotions, drama, laughs, suspense — is delivered with a thudding lack of subtlety or gracefulness, as if anything that isn’t pitched at breakneck speed isn’t worth doing.

Platinum Dunes, a production company co-formed by Bay, is one of the entities that spearheaded this reboot, and it’s not hard to see the filmmaker’s fingerprints all over the movie. In the past, Liebesman has been a crafter of anonymous but serviceable event films, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles finds him adopting Bay’s more-is-more aesthetic, even cribbing Bay’s low-angle/sweeping-camera shots that are his overwrought and overdone hallmark.

As a result, not only don’t the Turtles get a chance to breathe, a viewer can barely distinguish one from the other. (Thank goodness they have different-coloured masks.) Brought to life (somewhat) through motion-capture, the four reptiles have rather unpleasant, inexpressive faces, lacking the sweetness of the turtles from the 1990s films but also not looking particularly heroic or compelling. And between the lame wisecracks and intense action, their personalities barely register. Leonardo is the group’s leader — which presumably is why the producers cast a name actor, Johnny Knoxville, to voice him — but there’s nothing particularly memorable about the character. And the same goes for his compatriots, who have each been assigned one clichéd trait. (The one with glasses, for instance, is the nerdy tech turtle.)

To be sure, there’s an undeniable Pavlovian response to the film’s extended action sequences, which are so involved, frenetic and expertly choreographed that they have a bruising efficiency to them. But those fleeting pleasures dissipate quickly when it’s clear that Liebesman is merely mimicking standard action-adventure tropes: people dangling from dizzying heights; people engaged in ridiculously dangerous high-speed chases; and people (and turtles) kicking and punching each other with balletic grandeur. And because this reboot allows for the Turtles to withstand bullets, they have the same kind of nearly indestructible outer casing that the Transformers do, opening the door for preposterously outlandish sequences in which our heroes endure infinite physical punishment without ever seeming hurt or slowed. It’s very hard to root for CG critters with little emotional mooring or inherent weaknesses.

If the Turtles are devoid of spark, the humans aren’t much better. William Fichtner plays the umpteenth variation of his oily-villain character as Eric Sachs, a billionaire who shares a past with April’s family. Arnett provides phoned-in comic relief as April’s partner who’s convinced she’s attracted to him. (In another Bay tradition, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t pass up many opportunities to gawk at Fox’s figure, although it’s never as egregious or embarrassing as in her Transformers films.) And while Fox has been willing to satirise her bombshell persona in Jennifer’s Body and This Is 40, she’s largely inert as the scrappy April, who’s supposed to be a hard-charging investigative journalist trying to prove herself. Fox simply doesn’t display the intelligence or wit that the role requires, rendering April as artificial as her motion-capture reptilian friends.

Production companies: Nickelodeon Movies, Platinum Dunes, Gama Entertainment, Mednick Productions, Heavy Metal

US distribution: Paramount Pictures, www.paramount.com

Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Galen Walker, Scott Mednick, Ian Bryce

Executive producers: Denis L. Stewart, Eric Crown, Napoleon Smith III, Jason T. Reed

Screenplay: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and Evan Daugherty, based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman

Cinematography: Lula Carvalho

Production design: Neil Spisak

Editors: Joel Negron, Glen Scantlebury

Music: Brian Tyler

Website: www.teenagemutantninjaturtlesmovie.com

Main Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Abby Elliott, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Minae Noji