A film review by Craig J. Koban

TMNT jj

2007, PG, 86 mins.

 

Featuring the voice talent of:

James Arnold Taylor: Leonardo / Mitchell Whitfield: Donatello  / Nolan North: Raphael  / Mikey Kelley: Michelangelo / Casey: Chris Evans / April: Sarah Michelle Gellar / Splinter: Mako / Narrator: Laurence Fishburne / Winters: Patrick Stewart

 

Written and directed by Kevin Munroe

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Double-sided poster

It’s amazing what two men can do with a tax refund, a personal cash loan from a family member, and a hell of a lot of determination and positive energy. 

That’s exactly what Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird used to launch the phenomenon that is TMNT, or "The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".  It’s interesting, in hindsight, to see the very modest origins of this very peculiar – and lucrative – super hero comic franchise that spawned a billion dollar empire that could be aptly compared to other profitable toy franchises, like the Transformers and G.I. Joe.

Back in 1984 Eastman - during a casual evening out with friend Laird - drew a very humorous looking sketch that would become the basis of everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic mutants heroes.  Using the resources mentioned above, the young artists self published one single, black and white issue of TMNT.  Originally intended as a parody of four of the most popular comics of the 1980’s (Marvel Comics' DAREDEVIL and THE NEW MUTANTS, Dave Sim's CEREBUS, and Frank Miller's RONIN), this somewhat crude independent comic became an overnight sensation.  Independent comics were growing in the mid-80’s, but the fast success of TMNT allowed for the format to explode into the mainstream.  It gave legitimacy to the art form and gave credence to a long list of starving, amateur talent that wanted to have a name in the industry.  If anything, this is probably the most noteworthy legacy of Eastman and Laird’s creation as a whole. 

If one considers where the TMNT franchise went, it’s astonishing to see how dark, gritty, violent, and adult themed those first few issues of the comic were.  In the early Mirage comic book pages, the four heroes in a half shell unleashed as much bloodletting carnage as The Bride did in KILL BILL.  However thematically mature those comics were, the Turtles would be forever changed when they were introduced into the mass market forum.  In 1988 Eastman and Laird met with licensing agent Mark Freedman, who sought to take advantage of their creation for merchandising possibilities.  What happened next is the stuff of legend, and the Ninjas were made more kid friendly and turned into one of the most profitable toy lines ever by Playmate Toys, and was accompanied by an equally popular animated series, which essentially cemented the comic book heroes in the pop culture vernacular.  Whether parents liked it or not, the likenesses of the Turtles were everywhere. The success of the Turtles merchandising empire eventually segued into the movie world.  Three low budget live action films were made of varying quality by New Line Cinema: 1990’s TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1991’s sequel, THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (which made the cataclysmic miscalculation of having a Vanilla Ice cameo), and the mostly forgotten 1993 entry, TURTLES IN TIME.  Regardless of the live action trilogy’s lack of worth, they remain a reminder of the overt popularity of these characters. 

All of this, if you’ve been willing to read thus far, leads me to the fourth cinematic incarnation, TMNT, which wisely chose not to create another live action sequel (which, quite honestly, did not lend to the credibility of the heroes) and instead makes the heroes purely in CGI form.  This is probably a smart move, if not a logical one, seeing as Eastman and Laird’s mutants were spawned in comic books and truly made a name for themselves in the animated series.  Chronologically occurring after the events of the live action series, albeit in a manner not altogether advertised, TMNT is able to help free up the characters and greatly expand on the past films in terms of action and scope. 

Granted, scope and action is not necessarily the best improvements that the Turtles could have received in their computer upgraded forms.  Surely, the Turtles have never looked finer, and the action and set pieces are bigger and broader and eclipse anything in the previous film outings, but TMNT seems oddly archaic and unnecessary for today's film world.  Unlike other highly successful super hero reboots, like BATMAN BEGINS, the nearly 14-year wait since the last film has clearly not allowed the makers to invest in any new and intriguing material here.  These Turtles look the same, talk the same, act the same, and engage in the same sort of no-brainer story arcs, all punctuated by a lot of mindless martial arts mayhem.   

Was there not a better story to tell about four turtles that were dosed with radioactive goo, altered into humanoid form, and then taught martial arts by their sensei, who happens to be a sewer rat?  For characters that live in the dark and dreary sewers, eat a subsistence diet of pizza, and have no other real emotional contact with anyone else, would they really be as positive and noble minded as they are?  Certainly, there are dramatic possibilities that could have accentuated these somewhat pathetic creatures (let’s be honest, they are creatures – mutants to be exact – and they’re teenagers, which is a troubling time for anyone), but the film never makes these Turtles into compelling freaks.  The only real distinguishing characteristics that they have that differentiate themselves are their weapons and the color of the masks (and why wear masks that only cover their eyes?  Do they think that’s necessary, seeing as they overwhelmingly look like monsters?).  Instead of infusing some genuine interest into these characters, TMNT seems like another redundant excuse to go back to a merchandise well that was sucked dry and left empty in the early 1990’s. 

Nothing really noteworthy or memorable happens in this film.  We get some hasty exposition, a lame and ill-conceived villain, weakly assembled supporting characters, and a subplot commenting on the nature of family and bonding.  We are also dealt up a lot of kiddie hijinks; the Turtles still talk, for the most part, in sentences often punctuated by the words “dude” and “doofus.”  Also, the bad guys in this film are lamentably forgettable.  Now that their main baddie, Shredder, has been defeated in the earlier prequel, the Turtles - Leonardo (voiced by James Arnold Taylor), Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield), Raphael (Nolan North), Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), along with their master, Splinter (Mako, regrettably in his last film role) - now have to deal with another real bad ass, an immortal man. 

At the beginning of the film we see that Leo has been sent to Central America for training (how he managed to get a passport, board a plane, and fly over there in our highly protective post-9/11 airline security is beyond me).  While he’s away, the other Turtles do what they do best: Donatello likes to dabble in computers and everything gadget related (in a funny moment, he’s show working as an I.T. specialist, but as to how he got the job is also beyond me).  Michelangelo is the party dude and now works a 9-5 job hosting kid’s B-day parties (again, how a large, mutant turtle got a job like this is beyond me), and Raphael, the rebellious brute of the team, is now a nighttime vigilante wearing a mask and costume that in no way shape or form hides the fact that he is a monstrous, walking and talking turtle underneath.   

Yes, it appears that there is some friction in the group, seeing as they are separated from their leader in Leonardo, but they are also having family issues at the worst time.  It seems that an immortal being (played by Patrick Stewart, who obviously needed to repay a favor to agree to lend his talent to this) has gathered his immortal stone generals with the help of stars aligning and some sort of cosmic...thingy...happening.  Of course, this immortal is introduced as a corporate stooge at first, but it takes no one of unlimited intelligence to put two and two together and see that he is actually the main baddie.  He also manages to team up with what remains of Shredder’s foot clan, now lead by Karai (Zhang Ziyi).  The rest of the plot I will not dwell on, but I will say that it is a bit too convoluted and confusing for this type of film, not to mention that there never once appears to be any modest level of thrilling tension in it.  Of course, we get the standard, run-of-the-mill battle at the end with good against evil and…well…guess who comes out on top? 

If one disregards the lackluster storytelling, then there is something to admire in the glossy sheen that the film showcases the Turtles in.  Taking the modern advancements of CGI technology, the Turtles certainly emote better than their previous animatronic counterparts, and the action set pieces are also heavily amped up.  TMNT is certainly not the best animated film I’ve seen this year (that honor would go to RATATOUILLE), nor is it always pitch perfect in execution (some scenes, like a rain-soaked fight pitting two Turtles against each other – is beautifully rendered, whereas a few other sequences seem a bit less fluid and rhythmic).  Regardless of inconsistencies, TMNT is a solid and polished looking animated film that genuinely increases the artistic palette of Eastman and Laird’s comic creations. 

The voice talent is a mixed bag.  I like the nobility and tonality that Mako gives to Shredder, but the four voice leads playing the turtles do very little to distinguish each other.  Also, someone had the silly idea of casting Sarah Michelle Geller as Turtle friend April O’ Neil, not to mention FANTASTIC FOUR’s Chris Evans as street vigilante Casey Jones.  They’re generally stiff and disinteresting in terms of voice talent.  Patrick Stewart phones in his voice work, but at least the film saves us by having a very brief voice over narration by Lawrence Fishburne, who emotes with painfully stoic and mannered speech patterns; it’s almost as if Morpheus just left after giving his speech to the Zionists before the rave party in THE MATRIX RELOADED and ran to the recording session for this film 

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles certainly can take top honors as being the most odd comic book characters of the last 25 years, but the three live action films and its newest CGI animated entry do not play up to their peculiar nature.  Instead of going in a new and fresh direction with this landmark 1980’s trendsetter for more modern consumption, we are dealt with a whole lot of the same in TMNT, and by saying that I mean a considerable amount of surfer lingo, lots of pizza eating, lame dialogue, an even lamer story, and tons of gravity defying mutant martial arts mayhem that is never compelling or altogether exciting.  Yes, TMNT looks nice and fans of the Turtles will truly think that the CGI upgrades are an improvement for this series, but beyond its artifice there is not much for both the die hard fan and the agnostic Turtleholic to be entertained by in this movie.  Instead of being a nostalgic and successful re-launch of old material, we get a too much regurgitated material that we have been exposed to already.  I mean, why not take the Turtles in a whole new path that takes full advantage of their freakish nature?  Perhaps they all should have been on Dr. Phil discussing their battles with teen angst alongside their buried, introverted issues with being the product of a toxic, radioactive spill?   

Now that would have been cool...dude! 

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