(Release Date: March 23, 2007)
At the time of this writing, I count four different Television Series, more comic books than you can shake a stick at published by no less than six different companies (not counting reprints, collections and, yes, one Newspaper Strip), licensing agreements over games (including Video Games and RPGs), food tie-ins, clothing, a "Concert Tour" (I kid you not), a Theme Park attraction and Toys, Toys, Toys, Toys, Toys, Toys, Toys, Toys...
And somewhere along the way, they managed to make three live-action movies! So, what does all this add up to? Burnout! Lots and Lots of it. In fact, for a time, kids didn't even know who the heck these four Renaissance-Named superheroes were. However, in 2007, fourteen years (and five days) after the release of the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. have rolled the dice again with a fully computer animated Turtles flick, simply entitled TMNT.
How is it? Surprisingly... it's real good. In most cases, fans of the characters love the movie and detractors (or apathetic players) have had a lukewarm (though rarely negative) response to the film. One reason for this, it seems, is that TMNT is, in fact, a Sequel. Writer/ Director Kevin Munroe seems to trust the audience enough here to offer up a tougher, grittier TNMT than we've seen before (outside of the printed page), based primarily on the themes and moods of the comic books, but sharing continuity with the three live-action films in the series (if not the same goofy cartoonishness). However, Munroe also has a balance to this film. Munroe doesn't waste time with a relaunch of the series (do we really need this origin story all over again?), instead giving us a Turtles movie that fans can pick up and continue with, but he also succeeds in making the film accessible to a wider audience, taking time to develop characters and using sparse (yet quality) flashbacks and nods to previous events where needed.
We're brought back up to speed by narrator Laurence Fishburne who reminds the audience just enough about who these teenagers were and how they came to be New York Heroes... and how they came to... retire. Yes, if the abbreviation of the name isn't a hint, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't teens anymore. They've grown up, in many cases, bitter. Leonardo (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) has gone on a training sabbatical to become a better leader... but that ended a year ago and he never returned. Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) has gone from being the pizza-scarfing big kid of the group (remember "Cowabunga, dude"? That was him.) to entertaining kids at pizza parties for money. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield), the great and technological inventor, is now fielding tech support calls from the subterranean hide-out and Master Splinter, their giant rat Sensei (voiced by the great Mako Iwamatsu in his last film appearance) is trying to keep the boys together and spiritual until their "big bro" returns.
As usual Raphael (voiced here by Nolan North) gets a great deal of the story line as the "cool but crude" restless bad boy of the group. Can anybody guess how he handles retirement? If you said "Probably not very well!", then you win the Kewpie Doll... if that Kewpie Doll is a large, armored motorcycle-riding vigilante, calling himself the Nightwatcher. Open that can and what do you get? Canned Turtle. Raphael never retires. Not as long as the streets of New York City are still crime ridden.
But, if you'll pardon the expression, bigger things are afoot. Yes... the Foot clan is still operating, even in the absence of Shredder (though his specter still looms over the gang, particularly its de facto leader, Zhang Ziyi's Karai). It isn't long before Karai and the Foot find themselves employed by a wealthy industrialist named Max Winters (well-played by Patrick Stewart). Interestingly enough... so does long-time Turtle-Ally April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose forays into archeology have afforded Max Winters the final pieces in his collection (that being the four stone generals of Yaotl). They've also afforded April the only contact the extended Turtle family has had with Leo, who has, it seems, been hiding out in the South American forests, making life decidedly difficult for the protection-racket-running military.
Meanwhile, back at the Island (of Manhattan, that is), things are starting to shape up to show that these four Statues might not be mere sculptures after-all, but three-thousand year old warriors turned to stone by the actions of their immortality-seeking master. Yaotl is still alive after 3000 years (and he sounds a lot like Captain Picard and Professor X) and he's using his Generals as well as the revitalized Foot Clan to hunt down the Thirteen Monsters he let loose on the world three millennia ago just as the stars align to re-open that forbidden doorway.
Sound over-the-top? Well, it is. Yes. This is a fantasy film, to say the least, and it is in keeping with a lot of the surreal weirdness that the Ninja Turtles have built their adventures around for the past twenty-three years (and counting). Yes, you're asked to buy in to a lot of the mythology that fuels this story and sometimes that's not the easiest thing to do... but look, if you're going to watch a film about four giant turtles trained in the ancient martial arts of Japan by a giant Japanese rat in the sewers of New York who protect the city by night and day... nitpicking mythologies might not be your best bet, sparky!
Although there's still a good bit of wise-cracking to be had here, there are also some interesting dramatic moments here, mostly surrounding the question of whether Leonardo can step back into the role of Leader, and if so, whether or not he truly deserves to. This is especially palpable as Leo clashes with Raph both in and out of his armored mask. Further, fans of the previous stories will thrill to the sight of Raphael teaming up again with the Hockey-Masked vigilante (also April's boyfriend) Casey Jones (Chris Evans). Though action packed and funny (especially their arguments over which of them is the "sidekick"), there is also a more dramatic and brotherly connection there, mirroring the complexity (yeah, I know how that sounds... yeah...) of the relationship of the four brothers.
As thrilling as some of these moments can be (let's not forget that the Turtles' "father" is also voiced by a truly great actor), there are also some shortcomings that befall this film because of this. Although all the characters do get a decent amount of development, after a time Michelangelo and Donatello are relegated to second tier, showing bunt only for a wise-crack or a science reference. Further, the occasional character fracture is seen for the express sake of moving the plot along. This isn't a lot, but what's there is there. Lastly, as above, if you're not one to accept Ghostbusters-style mysticism in a serious film (and overall, TMNT is serious), this might not be the film for you.
But it's also not one for little kids. There's a cross-generational appeal here, as the darker, grittier side of the comics is preserved without ever getting bloody or (in any deep way) disturbing for the PG-rated crowd. "Cool" moms and dads (especially those familiar with the team from their previous incarnations) could have a great time with their teenagers seeing this one (especially considering all the "Easter Eggs"... listen close for a cameo by Kevin Smith). A Grandparent expecting constant pizza-references, exclamations of "Excellent" and "What the Shell?" and cuddly sidekicks might not want to bring their three-year old.
Fans of Animation might love this one, though. Although shooting for a more rubbery and less-than-photorealistic human form (akin to The Incredibles), and while never achieving the absolute heights of CGI (I'll admit, no true "new ground" is broken here), Imagi Animation Studios do a remarkable job of portraying the Turtles here in action, at rest, in darkness and in light. It simply looks great. The Foot Soldiers and the Ninja Turtles share an interesting glowing-eye effect that lights them up in the darkness and helps the shadowy figures to look even more bad-ass.
There is one scene, in particular, that takes place between Raphael and Leonardo on a rooftop in the rain. The well-done character design is accented by the individually animated rain drops. It's simply beautiful... and more realistic looking than the finale of Matrix Revolutions! Definitely a thrill to see and hear.
It all boils down to an imperfect, yet pretty darned good, film, mostly accurate to the source material and with a nod to the other incarnations that have popped up over the last 23 years (instead of the singular red mask, we're given the four colors of Red, Orange, Purple and Blue to better identify each turtle). Four Stars out of Five for TMNT, the film that tries to do a lot and actually succeeds. It's ironic that as SPRING INTO ACTION springs into action, my own adventures have taken such drastic changes. But, hey, with a rave review for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle flick under my belt, there's no real question of my "Geek Cred" anymore. See you solo in the next reel.
(and, yeah... that does mean "sewers")
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