Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"TMNT" (2007)

Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart and Chris Evans
Written and directed by Kevin Munroe
Rated PG - Animated violence
Running time: 87 minutes

TMNT [Blu-ray]Set several years after the original live-action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" films of the 1990s, "TMNT" finds the turtles growing up and growing apart from each other.  Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is an IT specialist who helps people over the phone, Michaelangelo (Mike Kelley) has started a party business as "Cowabunga Carl" and gets beat up on by small children all day, Raphael (Nolan North) sleeps all day and patrols the city as a masked vigilante by night, and Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) has disappeared into the jungles of South America to find himself.

April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her boyfriend Casey Jones (Chris Evans) have started an artifact shipping business, and are hired by the spectacularly rich Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) to locate a series of ancient statues.  Unbeknownst to April and Casey, the statues are actually a group of ancient generals who had been turned to stone by Winters in an attempt to become immortal. 

Meanwhile, Leonardo returns to New York after a lengthy absence feeling that he's failed his mission from Splinter (Mako Iwamatsu / Greg Baldwin).  He immediately begins to butt heads with Raph, who resents Leo for abandoning the team.  In trying to get the group back on their game, the turtles soon encounter the Foot clan, who have also been hired by Winters, attempting to capture a large extra-dimensional creature that's wrecking  construction site.  The turtles are shocked to once again run afoul of the Foot, now led by Karai (Zhang Ziyi), but they're also shocked at their inability to work together as a team.  Leonardo blames Raphael's quick temper and impulsiveness, while Raph shoots back that Leo is nothing but Splinter's pet turtle.

Splinter warns the turtles that they cannot win the battles to come unless they can overcome their differences, work together as a unit, and once again be a family. 

"TMNT" is a pretty jam-packed movie for an animated flick running just shy of 90 minutes.  It's attempting to be a sequel to the original 90s movies while also setting up a new franchise (one that's apparently not to be, sadly, even though the film grossed something like three times its production budget).  As such, some things don't line up.  For example, no explanation is given for why April suddenly owns an artifact shipping company, other than that it serves the purpose of the plot (though one might suggest it was a result of the time traveling adventures to feudal Japan in the previous film).  The two main plot threads also don't really come together until the third act of the film, leaving "TMNT" kind of feeling like two movies going on at once. 

What really makes "TMNT" the best of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films is that it's the only one that is both tonally consistent and also doesn't feature the turtles themselves as awkward, over-sized rubber suits.  As good as those effects were for the early 90s films, there's no getting over the fact that those were just dudes in bulky rubber suits, which were limited in both movement and expression.  The CG animated turtles in "TMNT" are given a full-range of movement, allowing them to move and act like ninjas, with lots of impressive martial arts on display.  They can also emote much better, showing a wider range of emotions in their facial expressions to match the voice acting. 

The centerpiece rooftop fight sequence between Leonardo and Raphael is probably the best at showing off the quality of the animation for the turtles (who are, by the way, more impressively textured and animated than any of the film's human characters).  It also shows off the tonal consistency I mentioned.  The big problem with the 1990 film is that it would be serious one moment and then cartoonishly absurd the next, veering wildly back and forth as though two entirely different kinds of movie are being made.  While there's a good deal of silliness and humor in "TMNT," it all seems to mesh together much better in a film that takes its premise entirely seriously but has fun in the execution.

While "TMNT" may be the best of the Ninja Turtles films, that doesn't exactly make it a great one itself.  It's good, sure, and entertaining.  But it ultimately meanders a bit too much, trying to cram in too many subplots for its own good.  It is too bad the series won't continue, since this could have been the start of a very entertaining new series of CG Turtles films.