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TMNT - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2007)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/27/07 17:01:13

"Cowabunga."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Aside from the briefest possible pre-credits rundown, there is no backstory in “TMNT,” no serious attempt to reboot the franchise or bring newcomers up to speed. I suppose if you know what “TMNT” means, the producers figure you don’t need to be brought up to speed, so why waste time?

As you most likely know, “TMNT” stands for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and no, that’s not just some dopey slang abbreviation used just in the marketing - “TMNT” is the real title. Following three cartoon series and three live-action movies, this new movie takes the Turtles into computer animation territory. Written and directed by newcomer Kevin Munroe, “TMNT” sticks more closely to the Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird comic books of the 1980s than the brighter, sillier cartoons and movies that followed. (To be fair, the most recent cartoon series, which began airing in 2003, was also a darker, grittier adaptation, in line with the original comics.)

The film opens with the Turtles in crisis: Leonardo has been in South America for a full year, leaving the team to learn how to become a better leader. He’s stumbled in his training, however, feeling unsure of his worth. Back in New York, Michaelangelo’s taken a job entertaining at kid parties, Donatello works as a tech support operator, and Raphael sneaks out at night to fight bad guys as the mysterious vigilante Nightwatcher. Will Leo return in time to reunite the team and help defeat the billionaire industrialist (voiced by Patrick Stewart!) and his master plan to - well, it’s quite complicated, but it involves the rare alignment of the stars, an ancient curse turning an ancient army into stone, thirteen mystic monsters that must be captured, and the “Foot Clan” ninjas?

Much of Munroe’s screenplay aspires to be more complex than the average action-centric cartoon, even it often falls into the traditional “everyone should work together” mode. Raphael, bitter at Leo’s absence and unconvinced of his abilities as a leader, eventually leaves the group, which we all know will lead to his inevitable return, accompanied by obligatory dialogue about brotherhood and family and getting along and being a team and all those other messages we want our kids to learn.

But this plotline never feels trite, because Munroe is actually concerned with making this an important part of the characters’ development (and yes, there actually is character development in a Ninja Turtles movie!) instead of merely tossing in the bit as some convenient plot point. The Leo-Raphael tension is not motivated by a cheap desire to follow a formula. Munroe actually cares about these admittedly goofy superheroes, and it shows with a script that makes character an integral part of the action.

More surprising is the way the movie treats its morality. Here is a kiddie movie that allows for a serious amount of grey area between both heroes and villains alike. Raphael’s solo adventures are questionable - yes, he is the good guy, and his actions aren’t too far removed from what the Turtles do as a group, but he’s reckless in a way he wouldn’t be with the team, and it’s uncertain if he’s doing more harm than good. The billionaire, meanwhile, may have intentions far removed from the expected world domination bit. A man cursed to eternal life, he has come to regret his past mistakes, and the conqueror we meet in the early flashback scenes has heavily evolved into the man we see today. (Moral blurriness of a more accidental sort continues in the fight scenes, which feature much swordplay but zero blood - are people getting killed, or just knocked out? You make the call.)

“TMNT” also benefits from a slick visual design. Created by up-and-coming animation studio Imagi, the computer cartooning is lavish in its background designs and all those wow-inducing little details (rain, water, smoke, fur, etc.). The human characters look like leftovers from “The Incredibles,” slightly toy-like and with gigantic jaw lines on all the men, but this fits with the comic book feel of the rest of the movie.

As a director, Munroe has a firm grasp on how to work “camera” movement within a cartoon. The frame zigs and zags with ease, whipping across the city skyline, giving the sense of flight to the Turtles’ already Spider-Man-like acrobatics. Munroe lets the movie show us things no real camera could ever achieve. Consider the scene where one hero dives off a building, and we dive with him, watching as he keeps up with the action behind him. Or the scene where Leo dives from an airplane and hang glides effortlessly over the ocean, and we soar as well.

The film’s only main drawback is in its voice work. The now-requisite casting of celebrities over professional voice actors takes its toll on the film in bits and pieces - Laurence Fish Bourne (who provides early narration) and Stewart have great voices, but there’s nothing there that couldn’t have been handled by anyone else. Kevin Smith, Chris Evans, and Ziyi Zhang add little to the mix. And, most importantly, Sarah Michelle Gellar proves for the second time this year that she is just as wooden and useless as a voice actor as she is in live-action.

Compare all of this to the work of Mikey Kelley, Nolan North, James Arnold Taylor, and Mitchell Whitfield, the veteran voice talent who provide the voices of the Turtles. These are fun, lively, detailed performances, and they help make “TMNT” the success it is. Especially in a movie like this, where marquee value comes not from the cast list but from the franchise itself, you’d think producers would realize familiar faces mean nothing in voice acting. (Only the late, great Mako - in his final screen appearance - manages an excellent performance from the cast of live-action stars; his turn as the wise sensei Splinter is thoughtful and emotional, adding a much-welcome heft to the character.)

Of course, these are minor drawbacks in a cartoon that’s so much fun that we forget that it’s actually about something as ridiculous as crimefighting, sword-wielding turtles. This is a comic book adventure with genuine love for its characters and genuine talent putting that love on film.

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