In the late 80’s and early 90’s, you couldn’t sneeze without hitting a poster, T-shirt, action figure or some other piece of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle merchandise. Those of you who were around during those halcyon Turtle days of yesteryear know exactly what I’m talking about. The stuff was everywhere. Those four karate-choppin, pizza-devouring, sewer-skating terrapins simply owned the 6-12 year old male demographic. Nothing else even came close. TMNT was practically a religion for children, and Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo were their Gods. Then the mid-90’s hit, Turtle fans grew into adolescence, and suddenly the “heroes in a half-shell”were cast aside in favor of the Power Rangers and their Japanese man-in-robot-suit ilk.
It was around this time that most folks figured the Turtles were just a passing fad whose fifteen minutes had come and gone. What started as an independently-produced comic book spoof of Frank Miller’s 1980’s work on Daredevil, caught fire with an animated series, action figure line, and later some successful feature films. Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, two guys from my neck of the woods, Northampton Massachusetts, rode a wave of good luck and massive popularity with a creation that ran out of gas and was about to fade into pop-culture obscurity forever.
But something happened on the way to the kiddie-property graveyard. The Turtles endured, weathering kiddie-fare storms with names like Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and Digimon. The children of the late 80’s kept the Turtles in their hearts, refusing to let them die. In 2003, a new animated series premiered and was a huge success. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were poised to take their place among the pantheon of beloved children’s pop-culture icons like The Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker, Batman, and countless others. Only one piece of the puzzle would be needed to cement their immortality, and that piece fit neatly into place this past weekend with the release of the CGI-animated feature, TMNT.
TMNT is a fun, surprisingly dramatic firecracker of a flick that brings the Turtles into the 21st century in a vivid, and very creative manner. As the film opens Leonardo, the stoic leader of the ninjas, has been sent to Central America on a training sabbatical by Master Splinter so that he can “learn to be a better leader”. TV reporter and friend to the turtles, April O Neill (voiced here by Sarah Michelle Gellar) shows up while on an assignment and lets Leonardo know that his decision to stay a year longer than planned has left his brothers in various states of distress.
Mild-mannered computer whiz and all-around brainiac Donatello toils as a tech-support phone operator; goofy skater-dude Michelangelo moonlights as “Cowabunga Carl”, a child’s birthday entertainer, and brooding rebel Raphael decides to engage in some vigilante justice as the costumed “Nightwatcher”. Leo eventually returns to the sewer where he is welcomed with open arms by everyone except Raphael, who isn’t too happy to be taking orders again. If that situation weren’t bad enough, strange monsters have been spotted terrorizing the city and the Turtles’ old enemies, the Foot Clan have seemingly returned with a mysterious new female leader.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I heard this movie was going into production, I was quick to dismiss it; figuring it would be a hastily-written mess with third rate computer animation destined for the kiddie-DVD bargain bin and forgotten within a year. Then the trailers started hitting the ‘net and I was shocked to see the quality of the animation and the incredibly cool style of the Turtles themselves. By the time the final TV spots were airing I had completely reversed my thinking. The folks behind this production appeared to truly care about the property and seemed dedicated to taking the Ninja Turtles seriously.
For me, the biggest surprise was the excellent writing and how dramatic and powerful some of the scenes in this movie were. At the end of their initial run in the limelight, the four Turtles became parodies of themselves, spouting off catchphrases like “I love being a turtle!” and “Turtle power!”. Even kids were growing weary of the over-saturation and rampant commercialism. Of course this all came to head with Vanilla Ice’s infamous “Ninja Rap” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze. I’m happy to report all of that is a bad memory.
The Turtles retain their personalities, but it’s not over the top and the catchphrase-shouting is kept to a minimum. In some cases the Turtles’ character traits are dialed down a notch (Michelangelo), while others are amplified even further. Raphael, for instance, seems even darker and moodier than his original comic-book form. It’s his conflict with Leonardo that drives the core of the film, and provides its most dramatic sequence. Raph and Leo square off in a driving rainstorm at night. It’s a very effective brother vs. brother battle that carries a lot of dramatic weight and is worth the price of admission on its own.
Sure, there are some very noticeable plot contrivances, but nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of the film. Everything zips along at a good pace (kids won’t be bored), the action is fun, and the characters are fleshed-out just enough to make you really care about them. All the old favorites return here, including hockey-masked Casey Jones (Chris Evans of Fantastic Four fame), April O Neill, and in his final acting performance, Mako as the venerable rodent ninja master, Splinter. Patrick Stewart lends his distinctive vocal stylings to a new character (won’t spoil it for you), and Asian martial-arts waif Ziya Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) voices the new leader of the Foot Clan.
Kudos must be dished out to crew at Imagi Studios for the awesome design work they did on this film. The Turtles (as well as the Foot Clan) look like a cross between their old-school comic book counterparts and their later animated incarnations, with a few modern tweaks thrown in for good measure. Where the design work truly shines however, is in the wild assortment of monsters the Turtles must battle. There’s awesome-looking stone warriors, giant furry beasts, creepy bat-like creatures, and a tiny little hyper devil that nearly steals the movie in his one scene.
My one gripe would be the design work and rendering of the human characters like Casey and April. Whereas the Turtles sported amazing textures and highly expressive faces, the humans had poorly animated facial features and often looked like video game models or characters animated with technology a few years behind. I’m not sure what the budget was on this movie, but the Imagi crew probably only had a third of what Pixar spends, so it’s understandable that not everything would look perfect. Despite these few flaws, Imagi should be proud. TMNT is a gorgeous piece of eye candy and a film that can be enjoyed by children and adults.
8.5 out of 10.