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March 23, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | March 23, 2007 |

I’ll just go ahead and get this out of the way: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was for me what Star Wars was to the previous generation; I devoured the comics, the toys, and the cartoon series; I donned the green backpack and red burglar mask for at least two Halloweens that I can remember; I lined up around the block to see the first film, disgruntled parents in tow; I poured quarters into the Konami arcade games; I even tried my hand at break dancing to Partners in Kryme’s “T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!” (Fuck you guys, I was nine!).

But in time, the Turtles faded away just like countless youth crazes before them. I stopped thinking or caring about the franchise somewhere in the mid-’90s (along with, I suspect, most of my peers) as I got older and found the original cartoon and film sequels more juvenile (or, in the latter’s case, horrendous) than I could stand. The Turtles didn’t disappear, however, but were manifested in different ways via comic and televised re-imaginings, including a new cartoon that attempted to get back to the original comics’ darker origins.

It’s with this rejuvenation in mind that the new TMNT arrives in theaters — it’s both a semi-sequel to the live-action films and a throwback to core elements, but construes them in a new CG universe. Making an animated film was a wise decision for the project, and makes the story’s comic irreverence seem more palatable.

The plot itself seems to slyly acknowledge the present state of the franchise: The Turtles’ glory days appear to be over, and the group is in functional disarray. Leonardo (the voice of James Arnold Taylor) has been sent to Central America on a kind of learning quest in order to become a better leader. In his absence, Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) and Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) keep busy with day-jobs (incognito, of course), while Raphael (Nolan North), restless and resentful over the inactivity, moonlights as a masked (er…more masked) vigilante.

April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), by contrast, has apparently taken this down-time to shed her former career as a reporter and become sort of Indiana Jones-cum-Lara Croft archaeologist/super-heroine. She also travels to Central America in order to find a mysterious statue at the behest of some omnipotent businessman (Patrick Stewart). She encounters Leo and tells him of the Turtles’ fragmentation at home, convincing him to return. The statue in question links to a separate plot strand that involves immortals, constellations, monsters, the Foot Clan (they’re still around), and a whole mess of high fantasy drivel that threatens no less than the end of the world.

Most of the fun (for my part) of the original Ninja Turtles incarnations was the group dynamic. Each Turtle had his distinct skills and personality: Leonardo was the idealistic, experienced leader; Michelangelo the lighthearted goofball; Donatello the cautious intellectual; and Raphael the brooding anti-hero. The four brothers’ individual traits and relationships were highlighted through their differing weapon and styles in combat melees, a veritable dream for youngling fanboys (and -girls!) who could easily pick the Turtle they most identified with as favorite and then watch in glee as each distinct trait was used in combination to defeat their foes.

TMNT is at its best when it hews closely to this familial dynamic of the Turtles’ relationships with one another and their human friends; the conflict erupting between Raphael and Leo after his return nicely informs everything that was so appealing about the original concept. Unfortunately, it doesn’t encompass as much of the plot as is should, nor are Michelangelo and Donatello given enough to do before colliding with the whole monster/immortal yarn that, naturally, forces the heroes to re-unify.

Writer-director Kevin Munroe deserves quite a bit of credit for the rejuvenation of a series whose interest has been waning for more than 10 years. The film’s energy and aesthetic are tailor-made for both older fans and young enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Munroe packs far too much plot into 90 minutes — especially concerning the laughably convoluted villain plot(s) — and the story has to zip along with too scant attention given to the multiple character dynamics. The briskness and enthusiasm of the movie should be fun for the younger crowd, and especially anyone with large nostalgia stores for this unique, silly enterprise. But to anyone without a preconceived appreciation of the Ninja Turtles, the corny quips, outlandish mythology, and breakneck, cursory pace will probably be insufferable.

For my part though, having neither expectations nor really any interest in a franchise I hadn’t thought about in over a decade, TMNT was a blast — a fun, forgettable glance back in time to something that grabbed hold of my young imagination and, obviously, never entirely let go.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

Half the Shell I Used to Be

TMNT / Phillip Stephens

Film | March 23, 2007 |

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