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Tuesday, September 16, 2014         

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Empty shell

The few bright spots in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" are dimmed by immaturity and overwrought imagery

By Peter Hartlaub

San Francisco Chronicle

POSTED:


The steroidal title characters in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" look as if they're going to end up on a cartoon version of the Mitchell Report. Some day, historians will look back at this generation's baseball players, Outback Steakhouse appetizers and ninja turtles as symbols of the era's excess.

Come to think of it, the whole "TMNT" movie is overinflated; like watching an otherwise tolerable music video, stretched out to 101 minutes. There are so many better ways to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation — including seeing superior movies in theaters right next door to where this one is playing.

OK, that wasn't totally fair. No one was expecting "Boyhood" or even a "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" level of quality with this film. Like the first "Transformers," the latest attempt to introduce "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" arguably exceeds its low expectations.

Besides WWE-level pectoral muscles and biceps, two things the new turtles have going for them:

» After years of rumors that the film would deviate from the original comic book vision of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the movie sticks fairly closely to its history. The opening credits sequence is particularly effective, using cel-shaded comic art to introduce the characters.

» Whatever you think of the rest of the movie, as fully realized flesh-and-blood CG characters, the turtles are impressive and almost always convincing. (The creepiness you noticed in the trailers is intentional, and wisely acknowledged multiple times in the script.) While Leonardo and Rafael lack the pathos of Gollum, it's just as easy to forget that they're visual-effects creations.

‘TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES'
Rated: PG-13
*
Opens Friday

In this "Ninja Turtles," Leo, Raf, Michelangelo and Donatello are the result of a science experiment, trained for 17 or so years in the sewer by their life-size rat sensei, Master Splinter. They're too immature for the real world to see them yet, but bolder crimes by The Foot Clan leader Shredder forces them into the open.

Megan Fox is April, an intrepid journalist who never seems to be writing anything down and needs to get rescued a lot. Will Arnett appears to be playing his Gob character from "Arrested Development" as a TV cameraman. William Fichtner, as a billionaire with a horrible secret, has effectively played the nice-guy-who-really-is-sinister so many times on the big screen, one can only assume the real Fichtner gives out the best Halloween candy on his block, but has 20 bodies secretly buried in his backyard.

Michael Bay didn't direct "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," but you get the impression the producer was peering over the shoulder of Jonathan Liebesman, shouting commands to ensure the movie was made to Bay-ian specifications. ("More slow motion when the human Swiss Army Knife thing throws the daggers!" … "No, no no! Make sure the turtle farts in the other turtles' faces before the product placement for Pizza Hut!")

Liebesman is very good at giving action audiences what they want the most (coherent action sequences and relatable characters) even as he leaves out the things that professional movie critics demand (narrative coherence and a mature take on a subject). The end of the movie is particularly frustrating, as the spectacle overwhelms the story, and every major set piece looks like something we've all seen several times before.

In the long run, the divide between paying audiences who think they got their money's worth and outraged critics tends to shorten. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is one of those films that 20 years later, filmgoers won't be able to remember if they watched the entire thing, or just saw the trailer. Contextually, there's very little difference between the two.

One unrelated note: Although April's workplace in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" looks nothing like a real-life newsroom (The desks are never that clean, people!), it is only the third least realistic depiction of journalism in recent memory — behind "Never Been Kissed" and "The Newsroom."





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