My first real exposure to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came back in 1990, when I was in my first year of reviewing movies for a couple small Pennsylvania newspapers. The characters, who had already achieved a sizeable fan base thanks to their comic books and TV cartoons, were appearing in their first big screen feature, and my job was to review it. To my surprise, I was kind of charmed by the whole thing. The premise was clever (it wouldn’t be nearly as effective were it Teenage Mutant Ninja Cheetahs), with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. It was good, old-fashioned dumb fun. I followed the Turtles through two more movies, then basically forgot about them as the 90’s came to an end and the popularity of the franchise waned.
But you know what they say: everything old is new again. The turtles are back on the big screen once more. This time, there are no guys in rubber suits. High-tech computer animation has wisely been chosen as the format to render the characters in the new TMNT. The rubber suits worked in a cheesy early-90’s kind of way, but CGI somehow seems more authentic to a movie about…well, teenage mutant ninja turtles.
As the story begins, we find lead turtle Donatello returning to the sewers of New York after spending time training in South America. His absence has broken up the team and caused resentment from brother Raphael, who responds by becoming a masked avenger of crime, a la Batman. Other turtles Michaelangelo and Leonardo are more welcoming of their brother, as it means they can work as a group again – assuming they can knock the chip off Raphael’s shoulder and make him forget his grudge.
Trouble finds them when an industrialist named Maximillian J. Winters (Patrick Stewart) attempts to collect a legion of monsters who were released from another dimension centuries before. What he plans to do with them is a mystery, but the turtles know that if all the monsters are brought together during a stellar alignment, their power would increase, allowing them to take over the world. With help from human pals April (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey (Chris Evans), they set out to stop Winters, whose motives are not exactly what they expect. Turns out the real villain is someone much worse, and the turtles will have to resolve their inner problems and work as a team to win.
Obviously, TMNT is not high art. It is a franchise – a product that comes with a built-in audience willing to buy it. No one will ever mistake it for a stroke of artistic genius. In fact, many will view it much more cynically than that.
I have to say, though, that it would have been easy for the makers of this movie to crank out a worthless piece of junk, but they didn’t. While it can’t compete with the best animated films – like those from Pixar - TMNT is a lot better than it could have been. The computer animation is terrific, creating a moody, atmospheric New York for the turtles to run around in. Sometimes, the “lesser” (for lack of a better word) animated movies look cheap. For proof, notice the less-polished entries like Barnyard or Everyone’s Hero. Regardless of whatever you think of the concept, TMNT looks stylish and detailed, with an appropriate comic-book-come-to-life feel. The characters and environments are creatively designed, and the action scenes are suitably fast-paced.
I also give some credit for a better-than-expected story. Sure, it lacks complexity, but it’s a nice twist having a more ambiguous “bad guy.” The film also earns some credit from me for going in a new direction. Some die-hard fans may gripe that traditional villain Shredder is nowhere to be found, but I was glad to see them avoiding another trip to that well.
Finally, and in some ways, most importantly, TMNT has a nice message for kids about forgiveness and the power of teamwork. The message is not just slapped on haphazardly, either; the characters learn these lessons based on what happens in the story. There’s nothing here that adults don’t already know, but you may appreciate the way this film makes your kids think about such things.
Of course, this is not a movie for everyone. It’s good for kids and existing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans. If you don’t fall into one of these categories, there’s not much chance that you’ll become a convert now. Having had a fair amount of familiarity with the Turtles, I have to be completely honest and say that I had some fun watching TMNT. It’s clear that the people who made it have real affection for the franchise. The movie will please those who it was meant to please.
( out of four)
TMNT hits DVD on a double-sided disc, with the widescreen version of the movie on one side, and the full-screen version on the other. Both versions feature full-length commentary from writer/director Kevin Munroe, who clearly has passion for the characters.
The special features consist primarily of deleted scenes, all in various states of preparedness. Some of them are shown in storyboard or pre-visualization form, others in “gray scale” (i.e. colorless) animation, and still others are fully-rendered. Apart from the content, it is interesting (not to mention educational) to see how many stages a computer-animated feature goes through to achieve its slick, polished look. The scenes themselves are all fairly interesting, and Munroe provides a running commentary as they play, explaining how and why they were deleted. In the alternate opening, Splinter is seen telling the back story of the turtles. There’s also an alternate ending that brings April and Casey more into play. A funny deleted scene shows Michaelangelo sneaking a piece of birthday cake back to Splinter. All the deleted scenes are interesting and, through Munroe’s comments, we come to understand the artistic reasons for leaving them on the cutting room floor.
A little further down the special features menu, you will find a side-by-side comparison of the storyboards and the finished CGI in a scene where the monsters come alive. Again, this gives you a little glimpse into how the movie and its many action sequences were conceptualized. Finally, there are interviews with the voice talent, including Patrick Stewart, Lawrence Fishburne, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. The actors talk about what they hope the film will achieve, as well as the pleasure of doing voice work for animated films.
TMNT is also available on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.
TMNT is rated PG for animated action violence, some scary cartoon images and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: TMNT
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