Maybe you just had to be there. Maybe you had to be at just the right place—or, more precisely, at just the right age—in the 1980s and early 90s to appreciate the fact that true coolness comes in teenage mutant ninja form. To the unwashed masses, the idea of anthropomorphic turtles, bearing the names of Renaissance painters and clad in color-coded bandanas, might come across as a bit farfetched. And a ninja master turned talking rat named Splinter? Well that's just silly.
Except it wasn't. At least not at the time. Not to those boys and girls—now young adults—who grew up with this stuff. So maybe we can still hum the entire theme song. So maybe we still have the comics and action figures stashed away in our attics. So maybe our childhood aspiration was no less grand than to grow up to be karate-trained, crime-fighting reptiles. Don't judge us. At the time, it was really, really cool. (And it remains cooler than, say, Pokemon. Seriously—how lame was that?)
But now I'm getting all nostalgic—which, I presume, is what the Weinstein Company is banking on with the release of TMNT—the big-screen reunion of the turtles after fourteen years of relative silence. One assumes that old-school fans are the target audience here—not only does it seem unlikely that this particular cultural phenomenon could translate well into the year 2007, but the film itself makes only a minimal effort to bring new fans up to date. There's no recap of the turtles' origins, and only passing references to their arch-nemesis, Shredder; the film begins simply by telling us that our four heroes are, in fact, mutants, ninjas, and turtles. (They seem to have grown out of their teen years, though this is left ambiguous.) No further explanation is given, and thus one imagines that the uninitiated will find the entire premise rather hard to swallow.
So it's a film for long-time fans—those of us in dire need of some Turtle Power after over a decade of drought. As such, TMNT feels very much like a high school class reunion; there's some brief fun to be had seeing all the familiar faces, noting how they've changed and learning where their lives have taken them, but, after the initial surprises are out of the way, things quickly grow stale and uncomfortable. It's almost as if there's a reason you haven't thought too much about them over the past few years.
It doesn't take long for the film to fill us in on everything that's happened since we last left our party-lovin' dudes. The evil Shredder is dead, his ominous Foot Clan dispersed, and the turtle gang has more or less retired from crime fighting. Nowadays, Donatello is working as a tech support guy; Michelangelo is entertaining kids at their birthday parties; and Raphael, bitter and jaded, has donned the costume of the Night Watcher, a masked vigilante who has Manhattan's criminal element shaking in their boots. Leonardo has left his brothers behind, and now lives an anonymous existence somewhere in Central America.
That's where the turtles' long-time friend April O'Neil finds him—evidently she's given up on being a reporter and taken up Tomb Raider-like treasure hunting. (She's also moved in with her boyfriend and long-time turtle ally Casey Jones—something parents might find irksome.) O'Neil's treasure-hunting quest serves as an expositional device for the film to fill us in on the current crisis facing humanity—something about an ancient curse, an extragalactic portal, and an evil business tycoon who is searching the world for thirteen monsters he seeks to imprison. Oh, and there's an army of stone warriors. And the Foot Clan is back. And some other stuff happens too, but the thing is, not many viewers are likely to care; the uninitiated will be bored because, frankly, it's not that great of a story, while long-time TMNT fans will quickly become distracted by the fact that the movie makes minimal effort to recapture the tone and humor of the series.
For instance, the movie's central crisis is not the one between the turtles and the assorted forces of evil, but rather between Leonardo and Raphael. The tension between these two brothers has grown to the point that it has destroyed their relationship and nearly torn the team apart, with the commanding Leo and the headstrong Raph clashing at even the most serious moments. This relationship dominates the film, while the other two brothers are reduced to comic relief. There's no chemistry between the turtles, no banter or wisecracking—just bickering between two brothers, and, ultimately, a rather contrived and predictable act of reconciliation.
All of the best-loved turtle catch-phrases are here, but they're never especially clever, much less funny. They're simply tacked on at awkward times, seemingly for the nostalgia factor alone. Granted, this franchise has never been known for its sophisticated writing or high comedy, but the script here—written by director Kevin Munroe— demonstrates no particular love for these characters, nor any attempt to capture the spirit of the story.
The film's saving grace—the one area in which it truly impresses, and even honors the tone of the comics and TV show—is its visuals. TMNT brings us the turtles in completely computer-animated glory for the first time ever, and the animation style is nearly perfect, blending the cartoony exaggeration and noir-ish grit that have always characterized the turtles at their best. Our reptilian heroes look more or less like they've always looked, but with faces more expressive than ever; Master Splinter, on the other hand, is given a much cuter, cartoonier look than ever before, and it works. The human characters are largely borrowed from the Pixar playbook—falling somewhere between The Incredibles and Monsters Inc.—and it generally works, too. The only exception is a villain who looks regrettably similar (that is, nearly identical) to Mr. Incredible.
If only such care could have gone into the writing. As it is, the long-delayed return of our Heroes in a Half Shell is big on style but low in substance—something that might come as no surprise to turtle nay-sayers, but is a bit of a bummer for those of us who grew up with these characters, and wish they could receive the series revamping they deserve.Discussion starters
- What is the cause of the rift between Leonardo and Raphael? Do you think one of them is right and the other wrong, or are both partially to blame?
- What are some of the characteristics of a good leader? Which of the characters in the film demonstrate these characteristics?
- Is Max Winters a good guy or a bad guy?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
TMNT is rated PG for animated violence, including some large-scale battle sequences. There is no blood or graphic content of any kind, though it's probably too intense for very young children. There are also some cartoony monsters that might frighten the very young. Two characters live together out of wedlock, though nothing explicit is seen or heard.
Photos © Copyright The Weinstein Company
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