Monday 14 January 2008

TMNT (2007)

Monday 14 January 2008
Writer & Director: Kevin Munroe

Voices: James Arnold Taylor (Leonardo), Mitchell Whitfield (Donatello), Mikey Kelley (Michelangelo), Nolan North (Raphael), Chris Evans (Casey Jones), Sarah Michelle Gellar (April O'Neil), Mako Iwarnatsu (Master Splinter), Patrick Stewart (Max Winters), Laurence Fishburne (Narrator), Zhang Ziyi (Karai), John DiMaggio (Colonel Santino), Paula Mattioli (General Serpiente), Kevin Michael Richardson (General Aguila), Fred Tatasciore (General Gato), Kevin Smith (Diner Cook) & Billy West (various)

The Turtles have disbanded in the wake of Shredder's defeat, but a new threat to New York means the heroes in a half-shell must reform...

I can't claim to have read the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 80s comic-book, but I was one of millions who loved the late-80s cartoon series, owned plenty of merchandise, played the video-games, and went crazy for the first two live-action movies, before the disastrous third movie destroyed the franchise...

Heading into my mid-teens, the Turtles phenomenon was consigned to history for me, although the franchise continued to bubble along with a live-action TV series. In 2007, the vogue for computer animated movies heralded a return for the heroes in a half-shell, with writer-director Kevin Munroe masterminded a "comeback" for Turtle Power...

TMNT (hip acronym, or a way to avoid the cheesy full title?) acts as a sequel to the live-action films, but animation immediately gives the film a scale and fluidity that Chinese acrobats in Jim Henson-made suits could never accomplish. That said, there was something delightfully insane and entertaining about watching live-action ninja turtles; and anthropomorphised CGI animals are rather humdrum in comparison.

For fans, Munroe's film will be an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and it's a fitting continuation of the series. Taking a cue from Batman Begins, this film doesn't even feature the Turtles' most popular nemesis – with Shredder confirmed as defeated in the opening titles.

Instead, we have original baddie Max Winters (Patrick Stewart), who comes with a typically bizarre back-story. It has something to do with an ancient prophecy, the alignment of stars, immortality, stone warrior generals and escaped monsters.

It doesn't make much sense (especially the monsters part), but the fact it's new material helps keep TMNT more interesting than yet another Turtles versus Shredder punch-up. I think we needed a break from that, although why none of the movies have used talking stomach-brain Krang as a villain is just beyond me.

As Winters' threat slowly builds in a subplot, we are shown that the quartet of Turtles have actually disbanded (shades of Ghostbusters II?), with Leonardo sharpening his leadership skills in South America, on the orders of Master Splinter, the team's talking rat sensei – voiced by Mako, who died shortly afterwards and has TMNT as his final screen credit. Raul Julia sends his sympathies, Mako.

Back in New York, geeky Donatello has become a one-turtle IT helpdesk, party animal Michelangelo is a children's entertainer (complete with fake turtle head), and cynical Raphael has surreptitiously become the "Nighwatcher" -- a disguised vigilante who stalks the city's criminals in the evenings.

Needless to say, the Turtles are soon brought back together and have to stop Winters' diabolical scheme, whilst tackling a variety of creatures, Foot Clan ninjas, and a group of stone warriors under Winters' control.

The sibling rivalry between Leonardo and Raphael is perhaps the film's best element, as the opposing brothers but heads (literally, in TMNT's most accomplished fight sequence atop a rain-soaked roof.)

Elsewhere, April O'Neil (Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gellar, unrecognizable) has been re-imagined as a sword-wielding heroine, with no mention of any news reporting, and hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones (Fantastic Four's Chris Evans, huh?) shows up as her wayward "boyfriend".

Tonally, this is darker than the cartoon series, but lighter than the hardboiled 1990 movie. At 86-minutes, it's brisk and moderately entertaining, but never truly captivating. The only thing that hits the right buttons is the Raphael/Leonardo conflict, with everything else too undercooked or confusing to involve you.

It goes without saying that non-fans will be bewildered and bored throughout, as this is clearly aimed at people with at least a working knowledge of TMNT.

I didn't hate it, but it wasn't particularly memorable or exciting to watch. Its ambition eclipses anything the live-action films achieved, but the CGI doesn't look as special as the "real" actors were in the 90s. But, as a modern version of the 80s cartoon series, it's a slick update that will please fans and possibly rope in a new generation of fans.

It's just a shame the villain's plot is hackneyed and unclear, while Munroe's directing mainly consists of constant zooms, pans and camera pull-backs. TMNT is nowhere near as enjoyable as the cartoons, or as enticing as the early-90s films, proving to be a mixed bag for fans. But there is good stuff sprinkled about, and the Turtles' mutation into CGI could hit paydirt in a Shredder-based sequel with more punch and pizza.

Warner Brothers
Budget: $34 million
86 minutes