TMNT (2007) / Animation-Action

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and mild language
Running Time: 87 min.

Cast (voices): Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako, Patrick Stewart, Laurence Fishburne, Ziyi Zhang, Michael Whitfield, James Arnold Taylor, Mikey Kelly, Nolan North, Kevin Smith
Director: Kevin Munroe
Screenplay: Kevin Munroe (based on characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird)
Review published March 25, 2007

TMNT dusts off the dormant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise with a modern facelift.  The black and white comic book gave birth to the color cartoon television series, which itself gave birth to the live action film series.  I haven't even mentioned the toy line and video games based on them that proved just as popular and influential to the TMNT mythos.  Going one step further, now the turtles are given the 3D CG treatment, and while it may be the best-looking version from a visual standpoint, with each successive variation, the Turtles seem to be more removed from the reasons why they became so popular to begin with, 

Mostly gone are many of the enjoyably cheesy pop culture references, the pert April O'Neil and her news reports, and the witty banter between the characters as they fight their equally colorful foes.  They still eat pizza and skateboard, but no longer does it seem like they're having any fun, now overwhelmed by a heavy-handed sense of duty, honor and family.  It seems that the creative minds behind this variance on the cheeky, pop-spoof Turtles make the fatal mistake of taking their characters and the world they inhabit too seriously to enjoy anymore.  It isn't even as fun as the more serious 2003 animated TV series that was created to bring the Turtles back to their comic book roots.

Although not specifically sequel to the other three films in the Ninja Turtles series of the 1990s (see below), TMNT still takes them into account, most notably in their fatal defeat of Splinter and the dismantling of the Foot Clan, or so they thought.  It takes place a year after the Turtles group has been told to stop fighting crime by Master Splinter (voiced by Mako, in his final film work), who doesn't want them fighting criminals until they learn to get along with one another.  Group leader Leonardo (Taylor, Nausicaa) has gone off to Central America for soul-searching and deeper learning on leadership, Donatello (Whitfield, My Cousin Vinny) has taken to perform computer phone support, Michelangelo (Kelley, the voice of Ratchet in the original video game of "Ratchet and Clank") is now entertaining at kids parties as an exaggerated version of himself, and Raphael (North, Ultimate Avengers 2) has secretly become a costumed vigilante known as the Night Watcher.

The quartet must band together once again when things become dire in their home town of NYC, possibly causing the end of the world as we know it.    Max Winters (Stewart, X-Men: The Last Stand) is a powerful and rich industrialist who just so happens to be an immortal who tried to conquer the world 3000 years before.  He had assembled a small army of monsters that later went dormant after they were turned to stone.  Now the Stone Generals are coming back to life, and with the help of Foot Clan leader, Karai (Zhang, Memoirs of a Geisha), Winters plans to give his plot of world domination a second go around once he has collected his monster army again.

TMNT is the darkest incarnation of the Turtles to date, and this is probably something that will split franchise fans, as some actually prefer a higher action-to-gags ratio than the mostly kid-oriented previous film series had delivered.  I think this is a mistake, as without the necessary references to teenage problems and silly "Three Stooges"-inspired antics, this is just four man-sized Turtles fighting uglier and meaner man-sized creatures, with no real vested interest other than a basic good vs. evil squabble.  Pop culture references are minimal, replaced more by extended action sequences like a skateboard ride into the sewer abode, sweeping scenes of the buildings of the city, and prolonged, action-packed melees that are practically futile to follow closely. 

TMNT's technical side is the real showcase here, with very well-rendered animation, nicely-articulated background designs, and fluid camera work that keeps the action looking sleek and polished.  The film's character designs are given more of an exaggerated anime feel, with characters like April O'Neil (Gellar, The Grudge) and Casey Jones (Evans, Fantastic Four) looking like teenagers themselves, while Master Splinter, a rat, has become (oddly) much more lupine in appearance (my brother compares his look to Chester Cheetah, which isn't far off the mark).   There is a decidedly dark look to everything here, with most events taking place in the evening, contrasting it to the very light and colorful television cartoon that many of us grew up watching.  At 87 minutes, the film is compact, but without mostly unnecessary subplots involving Raphael's vigilantism and Leonardo's self-imposed retreat (neither of which makes a lick of difference to the main plot), there isn't really much substance to justify a full-length feature.

With an intro scene to give background to the later plot, action that surrounds increasingly menacing "bosses", and plenty of side jaunts that look like a fun time, the film plays out a great deal like a mish-mash of video game-type mini-games centered on a main quest.  The Turtle skateboard scene through the sewer pipes is prime example of this, as we watch a "Tony Hawk"/"SSX"-style minute of action where we see plenty of rail slides, spins, and other skateboarding techniques.  The melees are much more game-like than before, looking like cut scenes leading up to boss fights.  In a stupefying decision, even April O'Neil gets into the action, as she dresses like a female ninja and becomes every bit as dangerous as the Turtles, despite the only training coming from a few self-taught practice sessions in her own apartment.  I almost felt compelled to look in the upper corner of the screen to see what the score was, and to find out which character was most in need of a power-up.

One might question why they've decided to abbreviate "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" down to their geek-speak moniker of "TMNT", but I think it's appropriate.  None of the qualifying aspects of their namesakes are remotely played up like they've been in the past, as they no longer act much like exuberant teenagers, are never treated like outcast mutants, and outside of their appearance, no one seems to notice much their own "turtle-ness".  Like the twenty-one letters that have been removed in their title, this film strips out a great deal of why kids in the 1980s became so enamored of these characters and their adventures, and in between, they've only beefed up the action quotient to the max degree.  While it's nice to see familiar characters given one more dance in the moonlight, it's a bit of a disappointment to learn that they aren't even half a shell of their former selves.

-- Previous films include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo