LOS ANGELES — Rebooting the popular franchise after Paramount acquired the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” rights, producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman have taken on a full recap of the turtle’s origin story and their epic conflict with the dastardly Foot Clan crime syndicate. As a late-summer entry arriving just before the school year begins, “Turtles” could see some moderately enthusiastic if somewhat unpredictable response from the film’s target audience, since many of the series’ fans may have already moved on in the seven years since the last outing.
The newest addition to the series opens with New York City lifestyle TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) looking to get a lead on some hard news, but her boss Bernadette (Whoopi Goldberg) couldn’t be less interested and even her regular cameraman Vern (Will Arnett) isn’t sure she has what it takes to report on the crime wave sweeping the city, as the notorious Foot Clan terrorizes New York residents. When April witnesses a stealth vigilante attacking Clan goons one dark night, she stumbles upon the story of her career, tracking down a quartet of 6-foot-tall, mutated talking turtles with lethal ninja fighting skills. Named after four Renaissance artists, teenaged Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) make their home in the city’s sewer system with the sagacious rat known as Splinter (Danny Woodburn), who has trained them in the skills of ninjitsu, making them martial arts experts.
Technically still in training, the turtles are unprepared to take on the Foot Clan fighters and their fearsome leader Shredder, but their interference with his criminal network has made them targets. Meanwhile, April turns to billionaire industrialist and old family friend Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) for assistance deciphering the turtles’ origins, unsuspecting of his secret alliance with Shredder. When the turtles and Splinter take her into their confidence, she discovers Shredder’s plan to subjugate New York and the key role the turtles may play in defeating the dreaded Foot Clan, if they can only manage to overcome their petty rivalries and work together.
Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty devote a substantial amount of time setting up April’s investigation of the mystery vigilantes, which provokes a frustrating delay before the turtles finally appear onscreen. Extensive use of flashbacks and explanatory dialogue that reveal her lifelong connection with the mutants also have a dilatory effect (while laying groundwork for future sequels), but provide an authentic account of the turtles’ origins while keeping the humor pitched at an appropriately juvenile level.
Not much of that easygoing style rubs off on the human characters, however, as Fox spends much of the movie acting bewildered as April tries to keep up with rapidly shifting plot developments and Fichtner delivers a generically styled, simplistically motivated baddie. Arnett has the only role that comes close to matching the turtles’ verve, but doesn’t get enough time onscreen to create a lasting impression. The cast members portraying Splinter and the turtles achieve a persuasive level of realism that was never possible with the elaborate puppetry required for the original film series and adequately fulfill expectations for their characters.
Liebesman relies on his genre-film resume to keep events moving at a brisk clip and the motion-capture process employed to facilitate live-action integration with cutting-edge VFX looks superior onscreen, sharply and smoothly rendering some thrilling action scenes and delivering impactful 3-D character detail. However, the drawn-out 101-minute running time and the nonstop cartoonish violence may deter some would-be fans, or perhaps the adults who pay for their movie tickets.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sci-fi action violence.” Running time: 101 minutes.