I was incredibly surprised by how well TMNT, Warner Bros’ attempt to restart the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, works. The movie has no right being as good as it is, although some of that reaction could come from diminished expectations. Still, TMNT works effectively as a continuation of the original comics/cartoons/movies as well as an introduction to the quartet of irradiated martial artist turtles. The fact that the movie works despite its bad guys, who are well-designed but boringly realized, is a real testament to the well-defined, decently written characters of the Turtles themselves.
The film opens with a not very good prologue, giving the basic origin of our bad guy – a would-be world conqueror who, thousands of years ago, got more than he bargained for when he opened an interdimensional gateway to conquer some city – he was made immortal, his four buddies were turned to stone, and thirteen otherworldy monsters were unleashed on Earth. Flash ahead thousands of years and we learn that Leonardo, the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the one who uses swords, is living in the Central American jungle dispensing justice. The team has been broken up for over a year and Leo has decided to stay in the jungle until he learns leadership. He bumps into April O’Neil, the former human sidekick to the Turtles, who tells him how much everybody misses him. Donatello, the brains of the group, is doing tech support. Michelangelo, the pizza-loving skater dude of the group, has his own pizza delivery company. And Raphael, the angry one who uses sais, has been, unbeknownst to his brothers, patrolling the city as an armored vigilante.
It turns out that April is in Central America to pick up an ancient statue for a client – yep, it’s one of the four stone guys, and the client is the immortal world conquerer. When he has all four statues collected, he will find and trap the thirteen monsters (he hires the Turtle’s archnemesis ninja clan, The Foot, to corral the monsters) and re-open the portal. Leo comes home to his brothers and they have to stop the madness, but first they have to learn how to get along again and work as a team.
The story sounds convoluted, and it is for the first half hour. There’s a lot of set up to get out of the way, but once the meat of the story begins the pace gets into the proper gear and things get interesting, especially when it comes to the rivalry between Leo and Raph. The two end up coming to blows in a rainy night duel that I will describe unapologetically as awesome, and if the rest of the film had lived up to that scene I would be giving TMNT a very, very high score indeed.
But the rest of the film doesn’t really get up to that level. While I understand that the statues/monsters/portal story is the McGuffin here, the villains are so anemic as to be instantly forgettable. I’m all for internal conflict in my superhero teams, but in the end the heroes need worthy bad guys to go up against, and this collection of toy designs waiting to happen (and I mean that in the best possible way, as these monsters and stone villains are very, very cool looking) are not that worthy.
It’s the lack of a credible threat that makes TMNT feel not like a movie but a very well written* pilot for a new show. At the beginning of the movie we’re told that Shredder, the ultimate Turtle baddie and the one-time leader of The Foot, is dead, but by the end of the movie it’s obvious that either he’s planned to return in later episodes this season… I mean in the inevitable sequel.
The movie is also very light on Donatello and Michelangelo – even Casey Jones, the hockey mask-wearing vigilante boyfriend of April, gets more character time than these two (although that’s probably because he pals around with Raph a lot). Writer/director Kevin Munroe is mostly interested in the Raph/Leo dynamic. I guess he’ll get around to Don and Mike in a future episode… ugh, movie.
TMNT’s CGI is very solid. Munroe has opted to go with a cartoony style but some scenes – like the rainy duel – are incredibly detailed and real-looking. The movie is very lean and tightly paced, with frequent breaks for action, and each of the action scenes are fresh and well-designed, moreso than the villains involved in them.
While the movie does feel like a pilot episode, it’s a very strong restart for the franchise. I’m not a cartoon guy, and I haven’t been interested in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in decades, but this film had me reading through old comics and checking out old Turtles toys. Munroe understands that 12 year old boys and 35 year old geeks both have the same idea of what’s cool in a movie, and he’s hit these two targets dead center.
*Except for the humor. Every joke falls flat. Thankfully, Munroe keeps the story and action joke-free, leaving his characters to utter unfunny lines.