In keeping with its cinematic predecessors from the 1990s (and a largely forgotten 2007 movie), this year's reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been critically lambasted yet enormously profitable. Produced by Michael Bay, the film reworks the origins of the humanoid amphibian gang, characters who first appeared in comics in the 1980s before getting their own cartoon series and movie spin-offs. Megan Fox plays plucky reporter April O'Neil who discovers the existence of half-shelled heroes Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, genetically engineered turtles that have grown up in New York's sewers under the close guidance of their rat mentor, Splinter. But with evil criminal mastermind Shredder threatening the future of the city, it's time for the four brothers to leap into action and save the day.
Emerging from the debris of the film with a semblance of dignity is composer Brian Tyler, the 21st century's Jerry Goldsmith in that he has a tendency to score a lot of poor movies but does so rather brilliantly. Perhaps recognising that the writing and acting of the new Ninja Turtles movie was less than inspired, Tyler decided to compensate with one of the most roaringly OTT and energetic blockbuster scores of the year, one that almost makes his Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World soundtracks (both excellent) seem restrained by comparison. As with his aforementioned Marvel works (he's also currently working on Avengers: Age of Ultron), Tyler pleasingly resurrects an old-fashioned, non-ironic sense of musical heroism, albeit one tempered with a distinctly modern edge.
Tyler's enjoyably robust orchestrations are immediately apparent in the lengthy opening cue "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". A rousingly nostalgic piece for brass and choir that steadily builds over 6 minutes, it also features a pervasive undercurrent of electronic percussion, a la Tyler's very own Iron Man 3, which locates it as a score of the modern age. It veers dangerously close to the composer's entertaining, Nordic-styled theme for Thor: The Dark World but gets more room to breathe, differentiated by a host of Asian-sounding percussive textures that hint at our heroes' ninja abilities.
As usual with Tyler, he allows for lengthy track times, ensuring the thematic ideas are allowed to develop and mature. A case in point is "Adolescent Genetically Altered Shinobi Terrapins", which begins a note evoking Danny Elfman's Batman before an ethereal choral/string theme hints at the wondrous origins of the Turtles. Three-quarters of the way through, the main theme erupts in soaringly brassy fashion before it settles back into a gentle piano motif at the end.
"Splinter vs Shredder" then introduces harsher textures, include anvil and shakuhachi wood flute, to musically represent the Turtles' feared nemesis. Around this, Tyler places emphasis on the brassy Turtles theme, which when combined with choir gives a real sense of good vs. evil. It's far too good for such a daft film (in fact, Tyler could be accused of overthinking it) but at least the score can be appreciated on its terms when separated from the visuals. "Origins" is another lengthy track that intelligently extends the more mysterious material from earlier in the score, gentle piano giving way to an imposing choir that increasingly gains in stature befitting our heroes. Midway through, it strikes an almost spiritual note which is surprising but very effective, although it doesn't last, the brassy climax ushering in more thrills.
"Brotherhood" is one of the score's most attractive moments, the choir/string combo attaining a proud, noble sound. "Turtles United" by contrast is one of its most rhythmic: an insistent brass motif gaining added urgency and excitement as it progresses. The punchy main theme comes roaring back in "The Rise of the Four", preceded by more vocal work, whereas villain's piece "The Foot Clan" utilises the choir in a more threatening fashion, pitched at a lower tone underneath an assault from the brass and percussion with the most explicit input from electronics so far.
"Shellacked" is another lengthy cue, running over 6 minutes, and begins with a triumphant statement of the Turtles theme, which then proceeds to alternate with more emotional material. The unexpectedly evocative shakuhachi solo three quarters of the way through is indicative of the intelligent touches Tyler dots throughout the score. The relatively brief "Project Renaissance" sees an attractive, if sparse, piano solo gradually overtaken by racing strings and the sound of the main theme, before yet more orchestral carnage is unleashed in "Shortcut", never letting up the onslaught as vocals, cymbal clashes, strings and brass usher it to an Aliens-esque conclusion.
"Shredder" brings back the harsher Asian textures for the film's villain, including wooden percussion and wood flute, before a dark, surging choir midway through leads to more orchestral bombast, the Turtles' theme competing with that of Shredder's. The nostalgically titled "Cowabunga" is another beefy piece of brassy heroism, this time with dynamic support from strings, whilst "99 Cheese Pizza" continues in much the same vein. "Adrenaline" sees the orchestra (in particular the brasses) pushed to their limits, giving a real sense of a fight to the death (again evoking Danny Elfman), the swashbuckling sense of fun further extended in "Buck Buck" before a final climactic statement of the main theme in "TMNT March" brings everything to a close.
It's tempting to accuse Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of being a score that's longer on noise and volume than it is on memorability. However, to do so would be to underestimate Brian Tyler's ability to extract a sense of fun and wonder out of a frankly duff film. The composer has carved out a niche between the tone of Jerry Goldsmith's rip-roaring action scores and the currently in-vogue Media Ventures sound, finding a happy middle ground between the two that is indeed relentless but also well-orchestrated and intelligently written. One need only hear the little nuances (for example the gentle guitar inclusion in the penultimate track "Buck Buck") to be reminded that Tyler isn't just your common or garden film composer. He's a true professional, looking beyond the material that he's given to work with and letting rip with the orchestra, whilst also dotting the album with enough intelligent moments of downtime. Little wonder that he's so in-demand at the moment: Tyler's blend of the old and the new is exactly what's needed to rejuvenate blockbuster scores, regardless of how bad the film in question is. Cowabunga, dude!