More than an hour into the toxic industrial sludge that is the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just as despairing moviegoers are reaching for their hemlock, comes a genuinely imaginative sequence. Actually, since this is a Michael Bay production, we should say synthetically imaginative; a Bay enterprise obeys no laws of physics, story logic or cinematic integrity. But for seven or eight minutes, Megan Fox, Will Arnett and the four Turtles career down a long snowy hill in a swerving 18-wheeler, pursued by arch-nemesis Shredder and his posse. Featuring dozens of cool stunts at a turbo pace, and climaxing with a literal cliffhanger, the sequence could almost lead viewers to exclaim, “Wow, this is a real movie!”
It isn’t. It’s simply the latest exploitation of the comic book created and self-published by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman in 1984. From that modest, black-and-white template a dynasty grew: toy figures by the gazillions, four separate TV series (in 1987, 1997, 2003 and 2012), a 1990 live-action movie and an animated feature in 2007. For 30 years, the world has not exactly gone Turtleless; and the new movie, directed by Jonathan Liebesman of Battle Los Angeles, has but one reason for its existence. Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon TV and Paramount Pictures, purchased the TMNT rights and entrusted a movie reboot to Bay. It figures: Bay has brought Paramount a little success with his own toy movie series, Transformers — whose fourth installment just hit a billion dollars worldwide. His partners wouldn’t mind if a new Turtles franchise matched the Transformers haul.
(READ: Corliss on the bot-sh*t crazy Transformers; Age of Extinction)
In the assemblage of clichés that passes as a script — by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (who did the fourth Mission: Impossible movie) and Evan Daugherty (Divergent) — the four adolescent chelonians play supporting roles to Fox’s April O’Neil, a J-school grad restless with hosting lifestyle features on a New York City TV station and eager to break some news. She wanders into it when she finds Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his evil Foot Clan making mischief in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and then catches a glimpse of the Turtles as they intervene in a Foot Clan hostage situation in the subway. The movie is basically The Girl Who Met the Turtles — saved them, in fact, when she was a kid — just as Fox played the Girl With the Guy With the Bots in Bay’s first Transformers episode.
Megan Fox was just 20 when she made that movie. She radiated an almost preposterous all-American sexiness there and in the low-budget, quasi-lesbian horror comedy Jennifer’s Body. Fox is now 28 and, in the interim, modern cosmetic science has rendered her into her own Tussaud wax exhibit, complete with lips incapable of closing, and eyes no brighter than her character’s intelligence. When April says she spent four years studying journalism, you can believe it, given that most J-school graduate degrees take only a year or two.
(READ: Jennifer’s Body — when Megan Fox was the Hollywood hottie)
The trick to making April the film’s prime questing spirit is in turning those around her into the dimmest of bulbs. Her TV van driver Vernon (Arnett) has to keep striking agog attitudes whenever a Turtle shows up; and her news boss (a wasted, bored Whoopi Goldberg) fires her when presented with the scoop of the century. William Fichtner lends his usual steely sleaze to the villain role of scientist Eric Sacks, who worked with April’s father long ago, and now has entrepreneurial dreams of infecting the tristate area with a deadly poison. Flashbacks reveal that April rescued the Turtles when a fire destroyed her father’s lab and incinerated him — thus making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the second film this weekend, after The Hundred-Foot Journey, to show a beloved parent burnt to death. (TMNT, rated PG-13, may be too intense for small children. Also virtually skippable.)
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hundred-Foot Journey)
To find trenchant character portraiture in the Ninja Turtles, you probably have to have been 11 during the first flush of their fame. No longer visualized as Jim Henson’s funky puppets in the 1990 film, they are now actors in ILM motion-capture gadgetry. Let’s see if someone a little older than 11 can distinguish these heroes on the half-shell. There’s Raphael the aggressive one (Alan Ritchson), followed by Donatello the tech expert (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo the other one (Noel Fisher) and Leonardo the other other one (played by Pete Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville). They all love three things: ninjitsu, their rat sensei Splinter (incarnated by Danny Woodburn and voiced by Tony Shalhoub) and any kind of pizza. When Shredder tempts the Turtles with a “99-cheese pizza,” they are almost powerless to resist.
The movie is low on the wit scale, even for summer blockbuster fare. (For a much cannier treatment of a science project going awry, see Luc Besson’s Lucy.) The mind cringes at the news that Paramount has already planned a couple of TMNT sequels. And except for the downhill snow chase, the picture boasts only one scene of film ingenuity: a video of, as one of the Turtles says, “A kitten playing ‘Chopsticks’ — with chopsticks!” My cursory scan of YouTube could locate no such video. But I’d rather watch a feline at a piano with eating implements tied to its paws than another movie of Michael Bay’s ham-fisted Turtles.