I got the call to review this one for Impact and I’ve got to say that at first I was a little apprehensive. I was never a big Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan; I was more of the Superman, Batman, Spider-Man kind of kid. (Still am.) But it was really, really good for what it was.
I couldn’t talk my usual movie buddy, Melissa, into seeing this one with me, but it didn’t take much to convince her boyfriend, Mike, to tag along. (Thanks again, Mike. I appreciated the company and enjoyed watching the movie with you.)
The Turtles did major business in the 1990s; the previous live-action films — the third and last of which debuted 14 years ago — generated a staggering $256 million in domestic box office alone. That’s not counting international receipts, home video, toys, cartoons, comic books and other tie-ins. And how about those soundtracks, with original rap classics from the likes of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice? T-U-R-T-L-E power, indeed.
This new, entirely digitally realized installment begins 3,000 years ago, as an ancient warlord marches an unstoppable army across the globe. (Some of the animation here actually looks more realistic than a few of the shots in the CG/human-hybrid 300.) When the warlord’s plan to harness the power unleashed by a rare cosmic alignment goes wrong, his generals are turned to stone and his armies are massacred by 13 inter-dimensional monsters released into our plane of existence. For his part in this, the warlord is cursed with immortality and doomed to live with his guilt forever. But if the cosmic alignment were to happen again, he just might have a chance to make things right. Cue our hop to the present.
With its backstory established, TMNT does something that will put a smile on every adult viewer who ever pretended to be a Turtle as a kid. Rather than building character development as the film progresses, TMNT begins with it. This movie doesn’t throw out the past in a cheap bid to reestablish the Turtles in a watered-down form for a new generation of fans. It builds on what has come before to create a story that will wow both the little kids seeing the Turtles for the first time and the big kids who never stopped loving them.
With their arch-nemesis Shredder long since defeated, Leonardo (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) has been sent away by the Turtles’ master, Splinter (Mako), to hone his skills and learn what it truly means to be a leader. Terrified that he’ll fail both his master and his brothers, Leonardo is afraid to return to his family in New York City. Back home, gadget-minded Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is wasting his talents as a call-in computer tech and Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) — in a hilarious nod to the hard times that befell another team of seemingly washed-up heroes in Ghostbusters II — is performing at birthday parties for children.
Raphael (Nolan North), however, has another method for coping. Frustrated by Leonardo’s extended absence and the fact that evil didn’t just stop and rest when Leo left, he spends his nights terrorizing criminals as a Batman-inspired vigilante called the Night Watcher.
Meanwhile, the Turtles’ human ally April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) delivers a rare archaeological find to billionaire industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) who, as it turns out, is a lot older than he looks. About 3,000 years older, nudge nudge, wink wink. To complicate matters more, Winters has hired the remnants of Shredder’s Foot Clan — reorganized by a fearless female warrior called Karai (Ziyi Zhang) — to help his newly reanimated generals bring down the 13 monsters who are still inflicting unspeakable terrors on humanity. For her part, April is still hoping for a commitment from her longtime boyfriend (part-time vigilante), Casey Jones (Chris Evans). (How old is this guy by now? Like, 40? April is hot. Make the commitment. Whammy.)
Leonardo returns just in time for everything to get ugly. While Donatello and Michelangelo welcome their brother, Raphael is still hurt by what he sees as desertion when they needed him most. Can the Turtles stop fighting each other long enough to finish the job that Winters failed 3,000 years ago? Betrayals on both sides might seal the fate of the entire world, with a smart twist or two thrown in to keep things interesting and unpredictable.
Genre heroes Stewart (Star Trek, X-Men), Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Evans (Fantastic Four) and Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) aren’t just phoning it in; they go so far into their characters that there are times — even for Stewart — when they sound totally unlike anything they’ve done before. Fans of the late, great Mako will appreciate the gift we’re given by getting to hear his legendary voice one last time. (Who knew a giant rat could be filled with so much wisdom and love? Mako makes you believe it.) The Turtles, too, are voiced by longtime voiceover professionals who give the guys plenty of life and heart.
Animation is top-notch, with exciting, complex fight scenes that take full advantage of the Turtles’ individual weapons and fighting styles. (There’s one confrontation during a downpour of rain that will take your breath away.)
While some of the humor is a bit silly, smaller children will appreciate those moments. But TMNT offers something much more for its viewers both young and old. Big lessons of love and honor and humility are presented in ways that take the story to unexpected places. Writer/director Kevin Munroe and his superb team of animators and voice actors have delivered something truly special for Turtle fans of all ages.