Another 80's cult-fave hits the big (and now smaller) screen. Blasting out of the gates before the simply awesome Transformers, TMNT takes the heroic quartet of pizza-guzzling amphibian evil-bashers and gives them possibly the best medium with which to portray their fantastical martial artistry - that of full-on CG. The quality of the previous outings may have varied greatly, but the regard that the Turtles are held in has never diminished. I was, perhaps, not their biggest fan throughout the decade they made their own, but with a small son who has managed to take them to heart via action figures, cartoons and DVDs, it has been difficult not to warm to them over the last few years. So, when this new version swung around, I was quite happy to go and see it at the flicks with him in tow and, although, I wasn't quite as enamoured with the movie as the rest of the predictably older audience, I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
Now, in the comfort of our own home, the film seems better again - its impact possibly more suited to the environment in which the Turtles initially flourished. The story is nothing revelatory, but then it doesn't need to be. Very wisely eschewing the “re-imagining” or origin-type of deal, a la Batman, Spider-Man or even Transformers to a degree, Kevin Munroe, who wrote and directed the film, TMNT actually carries on from events depicted in earlier ventures. With their original nemesis, Shredder, defeated and his gang, the evil Foot Clan, now plodding along as mere mercenaries for hire, the team have largely given up their days of derring-do. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is now an IT consultant, Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) runs a children's entertainment business, Raphael (Nolan North) snoozes all day and relives his action-packed heydays by fighting crime after sundown in the guise of an armour-wearing, motorbike-riding avenger called The Night Watcher. And Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) has gone off around the world to embrace his inner ninja and hone his skills, as advised by the wise old sensei Splinter (voiced by the late, great Mako).
Of course, there's nothing like a world-threatening megalomaniac intent on resurrecting ancient stone demons and opening huge trans-dimensional portals to bring old friends back together in a united cause. And Patrick Stewart's powerful industrialist Max Winters is just such a plot catalyst. Employing the Foot Clan, led by Zhang Ziyi's authentically-voiced Karai, he intends to free himself from an age-old curse and hunt down thirteen monsters that have been hiding in concrete jungles of Manhattan for a few thousand years. Thus, the scene is set for an epic showdown that will not only thrust the Turtles into conflict with Karai's ninja army, a cluster of laser-eyed giant stone warriors and a cluster of imaginative - though vaguely familiar - monsters, but with one another and their own ideals and egos. The messages of togetherness and teamwork may be louder and brighter than a neon foghorn, and the film may depend upon some formulaic scenarios and contrivances, but TMNT remains spirited and energetic. The action quota is very satisfying, with some scenes really pressing down hard on the adrenaline-button. A construction-site skirmish is brilliantly choreographed, tightly edited and imaginatively filmed, and, although brief, still sets the tone for the smackdowns that will follow. The tussle in the diner is wild and funny, mixing the anarchic with the creative and, refreshingly, tossing in some spices of actual danger amid the grin-inducing chaos. The CG is, for the most part, excellent, even if the UK's two leading movie magazines were a bit harsh on the film's exuberant melding of western-style characters engaging in Eastern-style anime-extravagances.
Several sequences really shine out. A rooftop battle between two proud brothers is simply jaw-dropping. Both intense and visually accomplished, the frenetic duel is lent a further degree of eye-enrapture by staging the whole thing in a downpour of purging rain. The fighting is fast and violent and the sequence will set this family film apart from its easy-pleasing PG-brethren. The big confrontation in the grounds of Max Winter's huge tower is a truly sublime one-take shot that follows the good guys as they kick, punch, spin and leap through vast hordes of ninjas, Munroe's camera never once standing still. Indeed, as impressive as the CG often is, it is the sheer filmic verve of Munroe's direction that carries TMNT. He utilises an intricately composed frame that paints the moody New York like a urban work of art, terrific overhead shots of the buildings as the Turtles bound across the roof of the city keep the pace and the tone accelerated and unstoppable. Intimate close-ups help the cartoonic characters live and breathe - although it must be said that the Turtles and the mythical creatures certainly look more lifelike than their human counterparts, who suffer from that typical CG blandness ... especially the blokes. But it is the settings that the story plays across that really elevate the movie's style. The streets look and feel alive, the interiors have a warm, lived-in feel and the architecture of the buildings and Winter's tower, especially, that provide the movie with a rock-solid foundation.
On the downside, the film suffers from a rather tedious and all-too-typical opening prologue that provides the background to the plot with the aid of Laurence Fishburne's portentous and sombre tones. There is also a little bit too much involving April O'Neill (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and vigilante-wannabe Casey (Chris Evans). At least April is now much more of a hands-on activist, martial-arts trained and slightly skewed towards the Tomb Raider end of the spectrum. And Casey supplies some hero-worshipping fun with his determination to battle crime and just be involved. There is a nice running joke about his heroic masks which receives a pay-off when he gets to act as a decoy wearing nothing other than a giant turtle-head. But this human element of the plot can occasionally drop the excitement down a notch or two. Thankfully, Munroe realises this and switches the Turtle-Power back on with timely aplomb.
Then there are the monsters. Some critics have stated that it is a bit of overkill featuring thirteen of them, but the film gets around this by taking care of the majority of them in a swirling montage of battle-and-capture highlights. Watch out for the subway scrap that pays homage to the similar sequence in Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy adaptation when “Red” takes on the first Sammael in the train tunnel. And that pesky little crimson, tooth-filled demon in the diner is surely a more vicious spin on Disney's rebelliously unpredictable Stitch. The Stone Demons - ancient warriors who have been in slumber for a millennium - are great and have a genuine sense of menace about them. Their size and fiercely implacable nature works well in a brief shot of their shadows coming up the stairs before them, and their blazing red eyes keep the flavour exotically satanic. A scene of one pounding savagely upon a door that two good guys are sheltering behind is effectively galvanising, as well. And the impromptu pigeon-pie that a sly gargoyle makes is nicely done.
One of the best things about the Ninja Turtles series is its dark tone, certainly darker and more violent than most other kid-friendly franchises. Remember the moralistic and sappy He-Man and the weapons-shy Thundercats? At least these guys get stuck-in. Admittedly, the original comic was the darkest, with subsequent incarnations becoming gradually more diluted - the worst culprits being the earlier movies - but Monroe makes inroads into bringing back the harder edge that the tenacious Turtles once had. Naturally, it is the vying for team supremacy between Leonardo and Raphael that brings this element to a head and this is, indeed, a nice little avenue of character development in a film that, essentially, just exists to smear lush visuals across the screen. Leonardo's soul-searching across the globe and Raphael's moonlighting as a crime-fighter go part-way to providing some depth. Hopefully, the next instalment will go even further in this direction but, for now, TMNT will do just fine.
Personally, I think the film is tremendous fun and full of wit and energy, although many believe it lacks that essential spark that raises it much above the multitude of action/fantasy CG or FX-rife fodder around at the moment. But if my six-year old son is any gauge for the movie's small-child-appreciation-factor, then TMNT is a clear winner. He loved it. Thankfully, it plays smoothly on from the stories and adventures that have gone before and does nothing to tarnish the Turtles' reputation as the premier quartet of amphibian ninjas. A franchise has certainly been reborn and from the sewers it rises. Recommended.