April 2, 2007

Mutant Turtles Stay Afloat

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Ask anybody on the street these days, and I guarantee you that most of them would say that they have interacted with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon in some capacity during their childhood. If they enjoyed the Turtles as a kid, give them a high-five; if they hated the Turtles, then let them be forever dead to you.

Yes, I’m a huge TMNT fan. I watched the light-hearted cartoon series, read the violent graphic novel series, saw all the live-action movies and sought the toys as if they were crafted by the Gods of Olympus.

Now that I’ve established my (probably unhealthy) obsession with the Turtles as a kid, let’s get down to the movie. The new TMNT film by writer/director Kevin Munroe, despite its share of flaws, is perhaps the best TMNT film to date, superior to all the previous film incarnations. Plus, it does not have Vanilla Ice in it, so that’s definitely a good thing (I apologize if I offended all four fans of Vanilla Ice in the world).

The film picks up after the Shredder has been defeated. Master Splinter has made Leonardo (the leader/boy scout) spend some time training in South America, so that he can hone his skills. With Leonardo gone, the rest of the crime-fighting turtles are no longer allowed to fight crime until his return, having them take up rather mundane jobs to pass the time: Donatello (the scientist) has taken up the tech support profession, Michaelengelo (the party dude) is an entertainer at kids’ birthday parties, and Raphael (the badass/asshole) simply “sleeps all day” but at night is secretly a crime-fighting vigilante known as the “Nightwatcher.” April O’ Neil and Casey Jones (the Jason Voorhees look-a-like) are now in a relationship, running their own shipping company and still maintaining their friendship with the Turtle family.

Leonardo soon returns from his training mission to resume leadership over the Turtle family, but that’s easier said than done. Raphael is extremely bitter towards Leonardo, feeling that he abandoned the family by training in South America and left him to pick up the pieces, similar to a situation where one brother goes off to college and the other stays home to run the family business. Leonardo feels that, since Master Splinter designated him as the leader, he has every right to resume leadership. The friction between the two brothers is a driving force behind the film’s narrative and is perhaps the best part of film’s story. However, Michaelengelo and Donatello are left behind as their characters are comparatively not fleshed out that much.

With the Shredder gone, the film must enlist a new antagonist to challenge the Turtles, and this is where the weaknesses of the film’s story become apparent. The main “villain” in the film is an immortal tycoon named Max Winters (voiced by Patrick Stewart) who enlists the help of Karai (protégé of Shredder, voiced by Ziyi Zhang) and her Foot clan to engage in some diabolical acts. To be perfectly blunt, the villains in the film are treated very poorly. They have very little character development, and several details that could help the audience understand their plan are left out. The ending of the film is rushed, neutering a finale that could have been epic if it was treated with less haste by the director. The film runs a scant 80 minutes; perhaps if the film was 30-40 minutes longer, these problems could have been neutralized.

The film is visually very impressive. There are several cool shots in the film, and much detail went into delineating the agility and fighting prowess of the Turtles, which was impossible to do in the previous live-action movies. The fight scene between Raphael and Leonardo is especially impressive in this regard.

Flaws aside, the film’s strength lies in its exploration of the dynamic between Raphael and Leonardo. Had writer Kevin Munroe applied more effort towards strengthening the film’s main story, the film would definitely be better. Still, if you’re a Turtle fan, you will definitely find something to like about it.