TMNT – Retro Review
With plans for the Battle: Los Angeles director to direct a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, Rob Vaux looks at the previous failed attempt to revive this franchise . . .
VOICES OF: James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mikey Kelley, Mitchell Whitfield, Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako, Patrick Stewart, Ziyi Zhang, Kevin Smith, Laurence Fishburne
2007, 87 minutes, Directed by: Kevin Munroe
I’m led to understand that a new incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show has revived the once-moribund merchandizing fad. That would explain why Warners is releasing this full-length CGI movie some fifteen years after the original fire went out of the franchise.
I can’t think of any other reason why such a soulless engine would grace our screens again; familiarity makes for great advertising, but there’s a tang of wishful thinking in this particular case.
There are certainly plenty of much fresher brands out there. And have no doubt: the only way to approach TMNT is as a brand. What started as a semi-amusing comic book parody has long since lost any semblance of heart or soul, positing weak catch-phrases and interchangeable characters as pure corporate commodity.
The turtles themselves have always been one-note carbon copies of each other, their heroics standard Saturday morning fare of the simplistic good vs. evil variety. They were harmless enough, I suppose… though their customer base consisted largely of those too young to realize how much they were being manipulated.
Much of that is in the past, however, and the movie placed before us now is but a shadow of the former pop-culture juggernaut. As product, however, it could be worse. Oh, it has no business on the big screen, its quality far more appropriate for straight-to-DVD fare. But the computer-generated imagery fits its reptilian heroes well (certainly far better than the dismal live action films of the early 90s did), and what fans remain should be satisfied by its adherence to the simple tropes which have come to define it.
Co-creator Kevin Eastman has long since departed the franchise (presumably to make sweet, sweet love to wife Julie Strain atop a giant pile of money), but his ex-partner Peter Laird shares executive producer credit, and gives writer/director Kevin Monroe the pedigree he needs to perform his duties unmolested.
The results are serviceable, though rarely anything more. Rather than regurgitating an old plot, it moves the storyline forward a decade, with an opening voice-over by Laurence Fishburne to update the uninitiated. (Fishburne is so monumentally cool that he can subject his coolness to death-defying stunts — like narrating a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie — and have it emerge intact on the other side.) Since the destruction of their arch-enemy Shredder, the turtles have fallen on hard times.
Team leader Leonardo (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) has gone into the jungle to meditate on his leadershipness, or something. Inventor Donatello (voiced by Mitchell Whitfield) is working as online tech support for a computer company, while comic relief Michelangelo (voiced by Mikey Kelley) is doing children’s parties disguised as a “fake” ninja turtle. Only bad boy Raphael (Nolan North) continues their vigilante activities, dressed in Terminator-esque body armor and calling himself the Nightwatcher.
Soon enough, Monroe embroils the foursome in a plot to take over the world — differentiated from all those other plots to take over the world by, um… well, nothing that I can detect. Along the way, they learn some rote lessons about togetherness and brotherhood, dictated by their sensei Splinter (voice by Mako) and aided by their perfunctory human buddies April O’Neil (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (voiced by Chris Evans).
Nothing about it is especially new, especially different, or even especially interesting. The turtles themselves retain their distressing lack of personality, and their physical similarities make it extremely difficult to determine which one is which (probably why their masks are color coded). TMNT gives them few challenges which can’t be resolved with a quick fight — including the climax, which is big on snazzy light shows, but short on providing any reason to care — and while a burgeoning conflict between Leo and Raph fills the time adequately enough, it never treads beyond the most well-worn paths.
Countering that is a general modesty of purpose which keeps criticism from becoming too harsh. Monroe never tinkers with the turtles’ wafer-thin mythos — ensuring that hard-core fans won’t come for him in the night — and delivers an acceptable amount of reasonably executed action. The visual design functions decently as well, unleashing an array of more-or-less engaging monsters amid the buildings of a more-or-less engaging Manhattan.
The best of it is a showdown between Leo and Raph in the rain, which earns no points for originality, but looks kind of cool and has an appreciable ferocity to it. Monroe’s script is all plot exposition and snide one-liners, but some of its old jokes still produce a chuckle (“If anyone wants me, I’ll be watching my stories,” Splinter sagely intones at one point), and the rampant commercialism of the live-action films is at least toned down to a considerate level. TMNT never promises anything more, and lowered expectations will produce little that anyone could actively hate.
Having said that, however, then what justifies the exercise besides a naked grab for cash? And if money is the only purpose, then why shouldn’t the fans just wait for the DVD? There’s nothing here demanding the big screen treatment, and a quickie three-parter on the Cartoon Network wouldn’t produce an appreciably different result. TMNT is no more an expression of creativity than a calculator or a loaf of bread would be. It provides ninety minutes of reasonably competent distraction, to be disposed of the instant one exits the theater. The prospect depresses me to the bottom of my feet.
It won’t kill you, even if it feels like watching someone else play a decade-old video game. I’ll save my real bile for far more worthy targets, trusting that TMNT will be enjoyed by some, ignored by others, and ultimately forgotten in favor of better fare.