In 1984, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman published a small independent comic book depicting four genetically altered terrapins, trained in the ancient art of ninjitsu. Two years later, “Turtle Power” was sweeping through the nation faster than a hungry turtle devouring leftover pizza.
Between 1986 and 1996 the ninja Turtle franchise spawned three feature films (complete with Vanilla Ice cameo), a weekly animated series (which ran for nearly a decade), multiple video game titles, “must have” action figures, and had kids all over the world exclaiming “cowabunga, dude!” Originally intended as a single issue parody, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise now ranks among the most popular and successful of all time.
Eventually the enthusiasm for crime fighting turtles began to subside, and while the Turtle franchise maintained a limited presence on Saturday mornings, it was unclear whether there would be enough popularity to justify another motion picture release (especially after 1993’s unsuccessful “Turtles III: Turtles in Time”). While the 2007 release of “TMNT” is a sequel of sorts, it does not necessarily take off where the prior films ended. Several years have passed since the Turtles’ victory over the Shredder, and the Turtles (no longer operating as a crime fighting quartette) have all but disappeared from the city’s consciousness. In this way, writer / director Kevin Munroe incorporates a similar plot device utilized in Bryan Singers franchise-reviving “Superman Returns,” by mirroring the Turtles’ absence from the fictional world with the franchise’s omission from popular culture. While “TMNT” will unlikely share in the success enjoyed by “Superman Returns,” it does restore some luster to the Ninja Turtle franchise. Most importantly however, the film succeeds in recapturing the fun and action found in the original motion picture – as well some of the gritty tension found in the original comic book series.
The film opens to find Leonardo training in isolation somewhere in the jungles of South America – attempting to rekindle his passion for leading the team into action. Leo’s absence from the team, though mandated by the wise Master Splinter (voiced by renowned actor Mako shortly before his passing), has lasted far longer than anticipated, and there is growing doubt as to whether or not he will return. Meanwhile, without their leader, the remaining turtle brothers have seemingly lost their way, setting into dull (though humorous) “9-to-5” jobs (although Raphael continues to patrol the rooftops as the masked vigilante “the Night Watcher”), and the city of Manhattan has gradually learned to make due without the presence of the cold blooded vigilantes. When a series of unusual sightings require their attention, the Turtles must band together and once again function as a team, in order to face down an army of enchanted stone solders led by eccentric billionaire Max Winters (Patrick Stewart). Helping them in their quest are familiar faces April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and hockey-mask-wearing-crime-fighter, Casey Jones (Chris Evans).
The plot is straight forwarded enough for children to follow, and doesn’t waste too much time reintroducing the characters to the audience. One problem however, was the film’s pacing. Since a large portion of the film was devoted to the tension between Raphael and Leonardo, younger viewers might have a difficult time sitting through some of the more dramatic scenes (although older viewers will likely enjoy the drama). Fortunately the film is littered with action sequences, which should more than make up for the downtime.
The abundant action scenes set “TMNT” apart from its predecessors. Though questioned by some, the decision to use 100% CGI ultimately made for a faster paced and more enjoyable experience. For every film that successfully blends live actors with CGI action sequences (“Spiderman” and “Superman Returns” are two that come to mind), there are dozens of examples of how interweaving CGI with live acting can go horribly wrong (one need only watch a half hour of “Daredevil” to see an unsuccessful marriage between live acting and CGI). The animation in “TMNT” is quite good, and in some scenes borders on fantastic – the rooftop showdown between Leonardo and Raphael is especially intense. In fact, all of the fight scenes (and there are many) appear to be well choreographed and detailed to a level not likely achieved using live actors in rubber suits. Overall the art direction for the film is solid. The city’s rooftops are far darker than in past adaptations, providing the film with a more gritty and edgy feel. It does however, take a while to warm up to the CGI animated human figures, which are drawn in a more stylized manner when compared to those we are accustomed to seeing in the Pixar or Dreamworks animated movies.
In the end, the “TMNT” succeeds far more than it fails. Though at times the pacing seemed slow, and the final battle sequence felt somewhat anti-climatic, the film was packed with enough action to keep younger viewers entertained. The movie also contained some dramatic elements, seemingly aimed at fans of the original series (now in their late 20’s / early 30’s). While the film will not likely spark another wave of Turtle frenzy, “TMNT” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a shell kicking good time.
2 ½ stars
In theaters March 23rd
Rated PG (for animated violence)