The Internet gets a little hysterical sometimes. Take, for instance, the significant kerfuffle regarding the latest reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Someone (we won't say who, but is initials are "Michael Bay") made some vague promises about taking the franchise in a "bold new direction," and suddenly there's death threats. Granted, said death threats did result in an abrupt change, preventing the egregious abuse of the only four things about this movie that they really need to get right. But the lingering bitterness it left behind does the final product a disservice.
Not that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is good. It's simply not as bad as early word would have you believe. True, it evokes Bay's directorial efforts (he merely produces here), but it's the higher end of Bay movies: the kind that leaves you shrugging nonchalantly instead of vowing to renounce all ties with humanity. You know the turtles? Then you know this story, inside and out. They grow up in a sewer, where their master Splinter (Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub) teaches them the mystic arts and sets them out to thwart the evil forces of the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Top turtle Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) butts heads with perennial rebel Rafael (Alan Ritchson) until they learn the power of teamwork, and everyone covets a slice of whichever corporate pizza company ponied up the most dough. (Spoiler alert: it's Pizza Hut.)
The differences come in subtler strokes, and some of them work better than others. The most interesting decision involves April O'Neil (Megan Fox), the aspiring reporter who first catches sight of the boys doing their ninja thing. The film makes her Elliott to the Turtles' E.T.: a witness to something magical that no one else could possibly believe. She remains the focus, the window into this universe, and surprisingly enough, she proves pretty good at it. The film doesn't ask her to do any heavy lifting, but she earns our sympathies quite readily as a lone voice of truth amid a sea of disbelievers.
On the other hand, there's the new CG versions of the turtles themselves. It's not that they don't look real. They look all too real, which renders them creepy and unsettling rather than cool and endearing. More's the pity: the film adroitly nails their personalities and the new effects technology allows the filmmakers to add little quirks (like Leo's NYC pin) that help cement their identities. As characters, they would make for engaging centerpieces were it not for the fact that their every movement severely spooks the herd.
So it goes for the whole of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: something surprisingly good walking hand in hand with something distressingly bad. Shredder looks like he wandered away from the Transformers set, but his silent partner (William Fichtner) is a flat-out hoot. The action scenes flail under undue bombast, but retain a certain whimsy thanks to the Turtles' prankish tactics. Even the changes to their origins -- launching point of a million Internet jihads -- proves more mundane than outrageous.
It might have done much better for itself had it not stuck to the same script as every other TNMT movie from the last quarter century. The beats arrive with the solemnity of kabuki theater, and can be spotted from miles away. Dressing them up with new actors and effects can't avoid the tired, beat-down quality at its core. It needs to find something new to do, something with the spirit fans expect but different enough in the details to justify the exercise. Had it done so, then the flaws would have become much more forgivable.
At the same time, none of that plunges to the rancid depths that many fans were predicting. When you walk in braced for a howler, the occasional good point feels like an unexpected surprise, and even the worst moments are more "been there, done that" than "holy cow this stinks!" Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suffers for its sins, but it deserves better than the early scorn heaped upon it. As always, a little perspective improves the experience for everyone… though in this case, the film still has too far to climb.