LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 six-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 3D 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.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Over the past two years, inside the high-tech sanctuary of Industrial Light and Magic, the man who built a virtual virgin jungle for the last “Indiana Jones” movie and conjured 150-foot-tall aliens for “War of the Worlds” has been confronting his most difficult task yet: creating a digital version of the beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that could realistically interact on screen with Megan Fox.
On this assignment, Pablo Helman needed more than just turtle power.
“For me, in the 19 years that I’ve been at ILM, this is one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on,” the visual effects supervisor said in a recent interview at his office. “Technologically, it’s very difficult to capture someone’s performance, put it on a character and make it believable. In this case, we had to design a way to combine performances that were taken at many different times.”
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the live-action reimagining of the 30-year-old comic book franchise in theaters Friday, features a completely computerized version of the four sewer-dwelling superheroes, a take more akin to Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” films or Caesar from the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies than the rubbery renditions from the 1990s live-action “Turtles” films.
The revitalized reptiles were fashioned at ILM by blending computer-generated imagery with several motion-capture performances by four actors. It’s a radical departure from the original ’90s film trilogy, when Jim Henson’s Creature Shop crafted puppety suits for actors playing the half-shell heroes.
For the reboot, the performers physically portraying each Ninja Turtle donned skintight grey getups and shell-shaped backpacks, while helmets equipped with cameras captured their facial expressions. The actors’ bodies were replaced on screen by their counterparts — massive talking turtles who know kung fu — and their facial expressions were grafted onto the Ninja Turtles’ green noggins.
Despite the effort to construct Ninja Turtles for the digital age, die-hard fans didn’t initially deem the makeover of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello totally tubular. Instead, many were shell-shocked to see in early teasers and trailers that the filmmakers added nostrils and lips to the turtles’ faces, a different anatomy than the one from the previous comics, cartoons, toys and films.
“This whole gritty, doofy, straight-out-of-’Avatar’ look is not working for the iconic cartoon turtles,” Jason Schreier wrote on the blog Kotaku last May. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has never exactly been cool — Leonardo and crew were always dorky and cheesy in a loveable sort of way — but they have never had ridiculous zombie nostrils and gaping mouths like this before. It sure looks dumb.”
Helman defends the humanlike faces because it allows the computer-generated characters, who he said are onscreen for about two-thirds of the movie, to be more expressive.
“You’re never going to please everybody because what you’re fighting is that magical moment when, in this case, someone first discovered the Ninja Turtles,” said the Academy Award-nominated visual effects guru. “It’s not possible to convince someone that these are the Ninja Turtles they fell in love with 30 years ago. The idea is that you have to take the original intent and make it your own.”
“Ninja Turtles” director Jonathan Liebesman noted that producer Michael Bay, the man responsible for bringing “Transformers” to life, originally laid out three commandments for the overhaul of the Ninja Turtles: they should be charming, intimidating and individually recognizable — not just to kids but also their mothers. Liebesman believes the filmmakers accomplished their mission.
“I feel like once people see the movie, they will understand why we made these decisions,” said the “Wrath of the Titans” and “Battle: Los Angeles” director. “We’re trying to make them more lifelike and realistic. I don’t think it sacrifices anything fans love, once they go and see the movie. I think hating on design is just a part of fandom, which is fine. There’s a lot of value to what fans have to say.”
It’s not the first backlash that Bay and the team at his Platinum Dunes production company, which is producing “Ninja Turtles,” have experienced. When the filmmaker originally unveiled his computer-generated interpretation of the Transformers, hardcore fans were enraged that Bay added flames to Optimus Prime’s paint job. The film franchise went on to make more than $3.5 billion.
“You can’t win, so we’ve just tried to present the best version of what we’re doing,” said “Ninja Turtles” producer Brad Fuller, who previously worked on “The Purge” films. “The movie speaks for itself. I wonder if all the discourse about the film is a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know if there’s actually a way that you can determine whether it’s good or bad.”
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