Director: Kevin Munroe
I consider myself to be very much a child of the '80s, or more specifically, a lover of '80s pop culture. I think the only pop culture phenomena I didn't get into were the Transformers and G.I. Joe. Look up in my attic, and you'll see toys representing the Ghostbusters, He-Man, and Super Friends, along with a handful of Thundercats and even MASK toys. Also up there are toys based on my favorite reptilian superhero quartet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I've spoken in three other reviews that I totally bought into Turtlemania in the late '80s, and although I was sad to see their reign over America's children end, I can't say that I didn't see it coming. Yeah, there were a few attempts to resurrect the Ninja Turtles, like that forgettable live-action show in 1997 and the Saturday morning cartoon that Fox began airing in 2003. But truth be told, I never really got into either of them. Because of that, I was beginning to think that maybe I'd put actually aside some childish things after all. That is, until I heard that an animated sequel to the live-action movie trilogy was going to be produced. I knew that it was a movie I had to see. But for years, it went through developmental hell. John Woo was attached to direct at one point, and there was talk of making a movie that would balance live-action actors with computer-generated characters. However, the choice was made to go with a fully CG-animated film that with the title abbreviated to merely TMNT finally hit theaters on March 23, 2007, just one week shy of the original movie's seventeenth anniversary. And on that day, there was much rejoicing from yours truly.
In the years since they triumphantly defeated Shredder and the Foot Clan, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have put their glory days as a crime-fighting quartet behind them and have gone on to different things. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) started his own one-turtle tech support company; Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) is "Cowabunga Carl," a costumed performer for children's birthday parties; and Raphael (Nolan North) has become an aggressive Batman-like masked vigilante known as "The Nightwatcher." The fourth Turtle, Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor), has recently returned to the sewers of New York City after a year in a Central American jungle, where he was sent on a soul-searching mission by Master Splinter (Mako Iwamatsu) with the intention of making him a stronger leader. Leonardo's return is greeted warmly by Donatello and Michelangelo, but he quickly finds himself butting heads with a resentful Raphael.
However, the hostility between Leonardo and Raphael isn't all that the Turtles have to worry about. Having left her life as a television reporter behind, April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has gotten into the archaeology business, with live-in boyfriend and hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones (Chris Evans) handling the transportation and delivery of the artifacts she discovers. April has recently been hired to track down a collection of four ancient stone statues for billionaire industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart), who has big plans for them. Very, very big plans. Three thousand years ago, Winters was once known as Yoatl, a warrior king that sought to conquer the world. He had learned of a constellation named "the Stars of Kikan," which align every three millennia and create a portal whose energy would grant immortality to whomever opened it. Yoatl did open that portal and became immortal, but the consequences were dire; his army was turned to stone, and thirteen monsters were unleashed upon our world.
With the Stars of Kikan once again nearing alignment, the man now known as Max Winters prepares to break the curse of immortality that has plagued him for so long. As he readies to once again open the portal, he calls upon the remnants of the Foot Clan and their leader, Karai (Ziyi Zhang), to search for the thirteen monsters so he may return them to their dimension. He also successfully revives his four stone generals Aguila (Kevin Michael Richardson), Gato (Fred Tatasciore), Santino (John DiMaggio), and Serpiente (Paula Mattioli) and charges them with capturing the monsters. But once the four generals realize that Winters will be taking away their immortality along with his own by sending the monsters back, they go into business for themselves. As things come to a climax, the Ninja Turtles must get past their sibling rivalries and stop the portal from releasing even more monsters into our plane of existence (and thus causing, for all intents and purposes, the apocalypse).
While it might not be a movie of Pixar-like proportions, TMNT is a wonderful little movie that doesn't let its shortcomings get in the way of its ability to entertain its audience. Yes, I just might be a little bit biased because I'm a fan of the Ninja Turtles, but their cinematic resurrection is a lot of fun to watch. The animation is fluid, the action is tight, and the voice acting is well-done. And though I thought the plot needed a little work, everything comes together to create a charming movie that I believe both kids and adults could enjoy. As someone whose childhood was spent in front of the television watching their animated adventures, in the toy stores buying their action figures and playsets, and at the arcade pumping quarters into their video games, I have to say that I was in no way, shape, or form let down or disappointed by TMNT. It's everything I could have possibly hoped for. TMNT is the kind of cartoon that I'd have loved as a child, and the kind that the part of me who refuses to grow up still loves to this day.
Writer/director Kevin Munroe has done a fantastic job in putting this movie together. Munroe and Hong Kong animation studio Imagi have crafted a movie that looks nothing short of spectacular, like the characters have been taken straight out of the original comic books. I've read online that some people weren't into the movie's particular style of animation because it was more cartoony and stylized than the ultra-realistic CGI in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but I think that it works just fine for the Ninja Turtles. I point specifically to the epic showdown in the rain between Leonardo and Raphael. The character design in this scene looks particularly fantastic, wonderfully accented by the individually animated drops of rain. The work of Munroe and Imagi is gorgeous, and it's almost enough to make that worth the price of admission alone. It's enhanced by the amazing music composed by Klaus Badelt, a score that properly and excellently evokes all the right emotions for each scene. It's marvelous music that really works even outside of the movie. Munroe also takes the opportunity to sneak in references to the franchise's past. Props from the three live-action movies Shredder's helmet, the broken canister of ooze from Turtles II, the time scepter from Turtles III all appear; a veiled reference to the Triceratons from the comics appears in the background of one scene; Michelangelo's "Cowabunga Carl" costume resembles the appearance of the Turtles in the '80s cartoon. It's these little things that make the movie just as special for the longtime, diehard fans as it would be for people just now getting into the Turtles. You almost have the movie more than once to catch everything.
Munroe's script is also acceptable, but the plot is unfortunately muddled. There's the feud between Leonardo and Raphael, Max Winters and the four generals, the Foot Clan, and the thirteen monsters (that are pretty much overblown MacGuffins). It's kinda tough to follow what's going on even if you're paying extra-close attention, and when you can make heads or tails of it, some parts feel kinda hollow. I appreciate his attempt to tell a story without going back to the all-too-familiar Shredder well, but I got the impression that Munroe just slapped something together in order to get the franchise off and rolling again. And could the setup for the sequel have been any more obvious? They might has well have just said, "You guys are gonna fight Shredder in the next sequel, and it's gonna be awesome." If you're going to beat subtlety into the ground, why not finish it off all together? However, there is some good in Munroe's script. The jokes are really funny for the most part, the verbal references to the past iterations of the Ninja Turtles are a lot of fun, and the way he has written the characters really pulls you in if you allow yourself to care about them. He also brings the long-smoldering rivalry between Leonardo and Raphael to the forefront and handles it well, though it almost comes at the expense of making Donatello and Michelangelo background characters. I'd also would have liked seeing more screen time for Karai, but I guess the mystery behind her can be built upon in future movies.
Lastly is the cast, one of the movie's most crucial ingredients. Veteran voice actors James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mitchell Whitfield, and Mikey Kelley all bring a lot to the table as the Ninja Turtles. All of them are great, with Taylor and North handling the pathos, Whitfield handling the exposition, and Kelley doing the comic relief thing with gusto. The rest of the cast is composed of actors who gained fame with live-action work, all of whom are wonderful. Mako Iwamatsu, who sadly passed away eight months before the movie's theatrical release, is fantastic as Master Splinter, bringing a sense of wisdom, fatherly warmth, and humor that the character needs. Patrick Stewart is also fine as Max Winters, though not a whole lot is asked of him. He does have a great voice, though; I'm surprised he doesn't get more voice work than he does. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans hand in sweet, amiable performances as April O'Neil and Casey Jones, and Ziyi Zhang is well-suited as Karai, contributing a performance that adds to her character's mysterious nature. Even the cameos by Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Smith are awesome.
Is TMNT a perfect movie? No, I can't say that it is. But it is a lot of fun, and that's really all that someone like me can ask for. It's an entertaining movie, taking a property and making it as kid-friendly as ever, yet letting it grow up and mature with the audience that fell in love with the Ninja Turtles twenty years ago. If the movie's intentions were to satiate old fans, create new ones, and reinvigorate a brand name that had become something almost resembling a relic of days gone by, then TMNT just might be a success. It reminded me why I became a fan of the Ninja Turtles to begin with, and most importantly, why being a kid in the '80s was so much fun. So I'll give TMNT three and a half stars (leaning towards four) and a loud, proud "cowabunga."
Final Rating: ***½