1980's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Kevin Munroe
Writers: Kevin Munroe, Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman
Voice Cast: Nolan North, Chris Evans, James Arnold Taylor, Mitchell Whitfield, Mikey Kelley, Mako, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart, Ziyi Zhang, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Smith
Synopsis: After the defeat of their old arch nemesis, The Shredder, the Turtles are needed more than ever, but Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo have become lost and direction less. Leonardo has gone to Central America, on the orders of the martial arts master and father figure Master Splinter, for training. Donatello and Michelangelo have started small businesses in Leonardo's absence. Meanwhile, strange things are happening in New York City. An army of ancient creatures threatens to take over the world and the Turtles must unite again to save it.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for animated action violence, some scary cartoon images and mild language
2000's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Raphael vs. Leonardo in TMNT
It's never good when families fight...unless it's together.
After several years of being absent from the big screen, "TMNT" (short for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) is back to reunite to become New York City's sworn protectors once again. However, unlike the last three theatrically released films, this one comes to us in a completely rendered CGI animated feature. Although the thought of turning a turtles film into a cartoon movie might put off some people, and possibly plant seeds of doubt as to whether or not it'll live up to the first two films, but it's actually not that bad. It's definitely better than "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III", and it's a fairly entertaining to boot. Unfortunately, the film tends to suffer from various plot holes, lack of direction, and poorly construed subplots that don't quite match up with some of the film's underlining themes. Don't get me wrong, none of these flaws really hurt the film too much, but it does keep it from being as great as it should have been.
As fans of this franchise know, the turtles haven't been as culturally relevant in a very long time, since their run in the late eighties to early nineties. Sure, there was a brief cartoon reboot recently in 2003, but it wasn't anywhere near as popular as the original show. However, what makes this film very interesting is that it takes advantage of the fact that most fans haven't seen them in years; which basically means that the turtles have somehow moved on with their lives, and are at a point where even they start to question their place in life.
The movie essentially takes place years after the turtles have defeated their arch nemesis, Shredder. What happened to him is never revealed in the movie, but it gives the audience the implied conclusion that he's basically dead, as far as we know; via narration by Laurence Fishburne. After about a minute of narration, by Fishburne, to explain the origins of the TMNT, and the alleged untimely demise of Shredder, the movie quickly shifts back to the past to explain an even bigger story. From here, we see an epic battle taking place that bares a striking resemblance to Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Although one would have to ask, what does all that have to do with TMNT? Well, let's get into that now.
As the battle wages on, a dimensional portal appears that only opens once every other century, when all the planets within our solar system are in perfect alignment with one another. Once this happens, the door opens to release horrifying creatures from across dimensions, while simultaneously granting immortality to an evil overlord named Winters (Patrick Stewart) along with his cohorts. Fast forward back to the present, we see Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) training in the jungles of Central America. As it's explained in the movie, Master Splinter (Mako) sends Leonardo to train in Central America, so he can learn how to become a better leader to the TMNT. Unfortunately, it's never explained in the movie why Splinter chooses to send Leonardo away to train to become a better leader, after Shredder's mysterious disappearance, but it does play a huge part in the film.
Over time, Leonardo becomes known throughout Central America, as a mysterious ghost that punishes those that fear on the innocent. In the opening scene in which we're introduced to Leonardo, we see a band of vicious men robbing a poor village in Central America. The men are burly and vicious, while showing little to no remorse over any of their actions. After they plunder the entire village, they leave thinking they have it made, but then a mysterious figure appears. A series of elaborate traps take out the merciless men one by one, until it's just their leader wandering through the woods alone. He calls out for whoever this ghost is to show himself, and that's when we see Leonardo emerge from the shadows, as he un-sheaths one of his Katana blades. The two engage into a sword fight, but the camera quickly out into the background to show an overview of the jungle instead of the fight scene. We hear a loud scream from the evil men's leader, but we never see why. Again, like the Shredder, it gives the implied sense that something sinister happened, without actually showing it's audience.
Through word of mouth, April O'Neal (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tracks down Leonardo while on a business trip to Central America. After searching, April finally finds Leo, and pleads her case for him to come back. At first, Leo is reluctant because he feels that his brothers don't need him, but she begs to differ. She says that the rest of the TMNT have become lost without his leadership, and that they need him to reunite them once more. It's from here, we also find out what the other turtles have been up to for all these years. Donatello now works as an IT expert that helps customers with technical issues with their computers, while dealing with them exclusively over the phone.
As for Michaelangelo, he has a part time job entertaining at birthday parties for children, while dressing up as a giant turtle, as he puts on a giant turtle head over his real face. Then we get to Raphael, who April just shrugs by saying, "We don't know what's been going on with Raph lately, as he just sleeps all day." To which Leo replies, "Yeah, but I wonder what he does all night then." After Leo ponders that query, we see a scene where a mysterious vigilante dressed up like an iron turtle on motorcycle blazes through the streets, and beats up criminals to a pulp. Who is this mysterious stranger? He only calls himself the Nightwatcher, but we immediately find out that this so called vigilante is none other than Raphael himself.
As it seems, the rest of the TMNT gave up crime fighting after Leonardo went to Central America to train. Why they stopped is never said in this movie, nor does it explain why in the scrupulous hell that it was necessary to send Leo away in the first place. However, this is basically where all the turtles have been since Leo's departure.
From talking to people about this movie, I can certainly understand the underlining themes of "TMNT" quite well, and I concur with anyone that chooses to bring them up to defend this film. I really do.
But to be fair, the surface of this story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, as it tends to rely on the notion that anyone who watches this movie already knows who the TMNT are, while also implying that this movie is something of a quasi-sequel (or indirect sequel as some would say) to the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" trilogy. In fact, you can even see subtle hints that this movie allegedly tries to make itself a sequel to those films, as we can see in Master Splinter's meditation room that he keeps Shredder's helmet rested on his mantle piece against the wall. From looking at the helmet, a fan of the original trilogy can immediately tell that the helmet bears a striking resemblance to the one that Shredder wore in the live action films, but it doesn't end there. Right below the helmet, you can even see an ancient Japanese scepter that bears a striking resemblance to the one that was used in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III." Does that mean this movie is a sequel to those films? Not exactly.
Although there are subtle hints of this movie being a quasi-sequel to the original trilogy, but there are a few differences as well. For starters, the foot clan is now being lead by Karai (Ziyi Zhang), a female ninja who was allegedly Shredder's right hand man (er..I mean woman) before his alleged defeat by the turtles. However, she wasn't in the original trilogy at all. If anything, wasn't a bald Asian guy that grunted a lot, in the original trilogy, the one that was allegedly Shredder's right hand man? Therefore, wouldn't it still stand to reason that he'd end up taking over the foot clan if something untimely did befall Shredder?
Anyway, Karai is a character from the original comic book series, who was introduced in the story arc, "City At War." Although, I can't say I remember her from the original eighties cartoon show. But then again, I don't remember all the old episodes that well, so I could be wrong. However, to my knowledge, she was never in the original cartoon, but she did play a prominent role in the new 2003 cartoon, "TMNT." To get back to the review, Karai is now the foot clan's leader in this movie. What role they play in Winter's grand scheme is something I can't divulge, as you'll just have to see the movie to find out.
As for April O'Neil, I wouldn't expect to see her working as a big time news reporter in "TMNT", like she was in the original turtles' trilogy either. No, it seems this movie chooses to base her character off some of the comic book incarnations instead; where she not only runs an antique business, but she too can kick foot soldier butt, as she's shown in one scene donning a yellow spandex suit while carrying a samurai sword. Looks like the turtles don't have to worry about getting her out of a jam anytime soon, as she definitely displays the capability of taking care of herself quite well in this one.
Of course, many of these differences lead to a severe problem though in this film's general lack of direction. Although in some ways, I would dare to say that the story is far better than the last two films, as "TMNT" not only tries to do something different with the characters, but it also carries a lot of underlining themes about how the turtles are like a family if you stop to think about it. However, I'll divulge more into that in just a minute. Anyway, what I mean by it's lack of direction is that the film sets itself up to be perceived as a quasi-sequel to the original trilogy in a lot of ways, as it offers various subtle hints that it could be. But, at the same time, there's also a lot of things that don't quite match up well if that was the case. As I stated earlier with the appearance of Karai, she was never in the original movie trilogy, so her very appearance as the foot clan's new leader doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of film continuity. Yes, I know in the comic book incarnations that she plays a high ranking member within the foot clan, but we're talking about the movie continuity here exclusively.
Granted, I know some comic book nerds will defend this by saying that she could have taken over the foot clan while Leo was away, as the film does take place years after Shredder's defeat. However, if that's the case, and knowing that Leo was in Central America all these years, then how is it in one scene that he knows who Karai is? Yes, I know they met in the comics, but they never met in the original film continuity. Therefore, this aspect alone contradicts the notion that this movie could be a sequel/continuation of the original trilogy. Also, it's never explained in the movie where April O'Neal learned how to fight, and it's never explained why she's in the antique business. Again, I know she runs antique shop in the original comics, and I know she learns ninjitsu in other comic book illustrations, by Master Splinter. However, for the sake of film continuity alone, it doesn't make sense when you try to match this up as a fourth sequel/continuation to the original trilogy.
Therefore, this leads me to believe that Kevin Munroe didn't quite know what he wanted to do with this movie. After all, it's not entirely clear if this movie is supposed to serve as sequel/continuation of the original film trilogy, in spite of the references, but at the same time, it also seems like he tries to make it more based on the comics. Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily saying that it's a bad thing that he wanted to make this film in line of the comic books, but it just makes it confusing when you clearly establish early on that the film could be a continuation to a film franchise that already deviated from the comics, in some ways; without offering some plausible explanations on how it shifts back to resembling the original comics. Hell, a brief explanation about why April isn't a news reporter would've been nice if you're going to try to pass this off as a quasi continuation to the original trilogy. But then again, many people that I've spoken to also believe that this film serves more as a reboot. Granted, it's a plausible theory, but if that's the case, then aren't most reboots supposed to re-establish the characters for a new generation of fans?
Ideally speaking, that's what a reboot should be. However, since the TMNT's back story is briefly glossed over, and much of this movie is based on the assumption that anyone who watches it already know who the turtles are, then it's easy to see this film fails as a reboot. Therefore, what was Kevin Munroe going for here? Is he making this film a reboot? A continuation from the original trilogy? A faithful adaptation from the comic books? Or what? At times, it feels like the film itself isn't sure what it wants to be; which can be very confusing if you're not familiar with the turtles' history too well.
However, that's not to say this film doesn't have it's good points either. Although I'll be the first to admit this film does have it's fair share of flaws, I have to admit the character development is actually a lot deeper than what we've seen in any of the previous turtle movies. Not only does the film give more of an insight about who the turtles are individually, but it also carries the underlining theme that the turtles and Splinter are like a family in a lot of ways. Master Splinter is obviously the wise and strict father figure. The turtles are obviously like brothers, as you have Raphael who's rebellious one. Michaelangelo is portrayed as the youngest one that displays the most youthful traits among the group. Donatello is portrayed as the book worm nerdish brother of the group. While Leonardo, he's shown as being not only the oldest brother, but he's portrayed as the one that looks after his younger siblings.
As I mentioned earlier about the underling themes, one analogy we could make about Leo's trip, to Central America for a few years, is a lot like a young man leaving his home to attend college far away from home. What happens to the younger siblings when the oldest brother leaves for a while? How do they react? Do they become bitter towards him, and resent the fact that the person they relied on most to keep them together is now gone? And what happens to those siblings after he's gone? How does the oldest sibling react when he sees that his family is falling apart since he's been gone? How would any of us react? These are just some of the many questions that "TMNT" touches upon, and it does so quite well.
Although, one could say that the underlining message this film presents can become hypocritical in some aspects. In one scene for example, Leo discovers the Nightwatcher's true identity on an abandoned rooftop. The two exchange harsh words of resentment. Raphael voices how he feels Leonardo essentially abandoned them; in spite of the fact that Splinter was the one that sent him away to begin with. While Leonardo feels that Raphael is behaving foolishly, and begins to lecture him how vigilantism is wrong. No, I'm not kidding. Leo lectures Raphael on how this new found vigilantism is putting their family in danger. But this raises the question...what does Leonardo possibly think the turtles were doing before?
After all, aren't the turtles vigilantes themselves? In fact, the very definition of a vigilante is a person, or group of people, that take the law into their own hands. Therefore, weren't the turtles already vigilantes before Raphael became the Nightwatcher? But then again, it's only a movie, so perhaps I'm reading more into this than I should. Needless to say, it does come off as a bit hypocritical, but the fight scene that pursues afterwards is rather impressive at best.
I have to say out of all the CGI animated films that I've seen, this movie probably features some of the best fight scenes. Not only are the fights very well choreographed, but at certain moments, you can barely tell that it was CGI rendered at all. In fact, in some instances where they only showed the back of the turtles' shells, I could have sworn they looked almost as realistic as the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" costumes were.
Overall, I think the story and character development in some ways makes this film a lot better than the last two movies, but the general lack of direction and plot holes tend to keep it from ever reaching it's full potential. Granted, it's not a bad film by any means, but it's certainly not great either. In the end, I'd have to give this movie a two out of four. It's definitely worth watching if you're a huge fan of the franchise, but I wouldn't recommend it to newcomers that aren't familiar with them.