Trying to explain to anyone why a story about a bunch of pizza-eating turtle ninjas battling crime holds a special place in your heart might be difficult if said recipient didn't grow up in the 80's. Personally, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the height of their fame, I was still just a wee pre-teen and, well what can I say? I loved 'em! I had the toys, the video games and even tracked down the more adult-oriented comics by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. The afternoon cartoon was a daily after school activity.
Then came the live action movies, and I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't totally jazzed for them. I went and saw them with friends, cheering along and exiting the theater with my buddies all happily kicking and punching one another with our newly learned ninja skills. And yes, I even saw the Vanilla Ice one on opening night. "Go Turtles, go turtles, go!"
It seems that I'm not the only one with fond memories of this unique remnant of the me decade. In fact, 80's nostalgia in general is coming back in a big way. TMNT is but the first movie to try cashing in on this new trend, with a little movie by Michael Bay called Transformers following suit this July. Other rumored upcoming 80's vehicles include G.I. Joe, the A-Team and Punky Brewster: Medicine Woman. Okay, one of those is made up.
TMNT finds our Turtles lavishly re-envisioned in CG. The story openly nods to the fact that they have been basically MIA for more than a decade. As the plot goes, the group has partially disbanded after defeating their greatest foe, The Shredder. Leonardo has been traveling the globe to better himself while Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo have found a variety of tasks to busy themselves, ranging from kid parties to pizza delivery and even a bit of that old school vigilante work courtesy of the Night Watcher.
A Tech-industrialist by the name of Max Winters concocts an evil plan to unleash an army of ancient monsters. Things go a bit awry when these beasties start trashing Manhattan. Now Master Splinter and Leonardo realize it's time to get the family back together and save the city one more time. The Turtles are aided by their old allies Casey Jones, a bat-wielding vigilante with a hockey mask and April O'Neil, the city's top TV crime reporter. The voice talent for TMNT includes Mako, Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Smith. TMNT is directed by Kevin Munroe.
Stuck in some kind of void between the much darker black-and-white Eastman and Laird comics and the campier cartoons and live action movies, TMNT has a tough time pleasing either segment of the fan base. Unfortunately, and much to their chagrin, Munroe and producer Thomas K. Gray (who also worked on all of the Turtles live action movies) were forced to keep the movie to a PG rating, making it difficult to go as dark as they might have originally envisioned.
What's strange is that TMNT also isn't as much fun as I expected. Outside of a very cool sewer skateboarding sequence and a brief reference to the Turtles affinity for greasy pizza, most of the story leans towards the heavier side. But, of course, you can only get so heavy in a PG movie.
Visually, TMNT is top notch. The Turtles look as good as they ever have on screen, as does New York City. There are some truly impressive visual feats, such as a rain sequence in which individual droplets bounce off a Turtle's head. Very cool stuff. It's a treat to see the Turtles look this cool.
But, alas, the overall result is a series of striking visuals within a storyline that falls rather flat. Each of the characters is underdeveloped, making it almost impossible to distinguish the undeniably similar-looking Turtles from one another. With this problem in mind, and within the context of a story that attempts to re-imagine the Turtles, the inclusion of periphery characters like Casey Jones and April O'Neil only detracts from what little character development there is. Also, when did April gain ninja skills? Did I miss something?
It was a conscious decision not to include a back story in TMNT and that ultimately winds up being a mistake. A lot of the fun lore that made the Turtles so great is glossed over or forgotten here, meaning potential new fans will be lost and older fans are left to wonder exactly where this work fits within the context of the series.
For young kids, you could do worse. TMNT is not terribly violent, but the action is fun and visually entertaining enough to keep kids entertained and avoid driving parents too insane. Instead, they'll more than likely just be bored.
TMNT will appease on some basic levels, but falls far short of its potential.