Tuesday, August 14, 2007

TMNT (2007)

In the mid 80s a friend introduced me to an underground comic. It was drawn in black and white and was by some small fly by night comic book company I had never heard of (Mirage, the creation of the two writers, Eastman & Laird. Together they had developed a concept and taken it to the biggest audience they could find...the underground comic collectors. Hardly anyone had heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and those who had guarded the secret closely. It felt kind of cool to be on the fringe of the avauntgard for a change, knowing about something the general public did not.

Of course, Turtle Mania exploded with huge lines of toys, mainstream color comics, movies, and television programs. In the process, the "feel" of the turtles changed several times to adapt to the audience.This is neither good nor bad, it simply "is". On the dark side, if you fell in love with the gritty, edgy black and white Turtles then the sometimes saccharin and cheesy cartoons probably irritated you. Conversely, if you just liked the concept then the constant innovation might work to keep them "fresh" and entertaining.

The second movie I ever saw in a theatre was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and it was a version of the Turtles that I loved. It was full of hilarious one-liners, a threatening villain, interesting sub-plots and, with the cheesy fighting rat scene excepted, very well done in the special effects department. The two sequels had their good parts...and their misses. The wise cracks were worse, the cheese factor higher, and how well can you rate a movie reprising "Ice, Ice Baby" with lyrics such as "Go Ninja, go Ninja, Go!" in it? They were still entertaining..but nowhere near the quality of the first one and the franchise faded away. Recently it has been reinvigorated with new cartoons, new themes, and a new era so we now have the CGI TMNT (2007).

As a long time Turtle fan it is no surprise I was there to see it. From the first preview I was excited...I recognized their silhouettes as they crept across a span. And I only got more excited with every preview. The graphics were amazing and the cut of the plane's landing gear descending to reveal Leonardo holding on to it was spectacular.

Unfortunately, anticipation like that is seldom justified. In the last few years perhaps only The Simpsons Movie (2007) has managed to exceed unrealistic expectations. Indeed, when I first saw TMNT I was disappointed. It was an okay movie...but nowhere near what I had built it up to. Fortunately, I am willing to give things a second chance.

When it was released on DVD on August 7th I picked it up along with The Simpsons Season 10 and sat down to watch it.

This time I approached it more reasonably, without the pent-up anticipation. And it proved to be exactly what it should...a rollicking good time that made excellent use of the history and variety of the Turtles franchise. Back were classic one-liners, the intense yet entertaining fight scenes, and yes...even the bigger than life extra-terrestrial villains. To kids who grew up on the Turtles versus the Foot Clan and never experienced Baxter in his glory with the Mousers as actual credible opponents or who never saw the story arcs with the TCRI aliens, this was in many ways a throwback to a time when visible death was part of the Turtle universe.

The movie does a good job of tying together various aspects of the Turtle continuity. When Casey finds "The Night Watcher", aka Raphael, on the roof the meeting echoes their initial movie meeting in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When Raphael knows Leonardo was captured because of his temper he recreates the primal roar from the same movie. Even the final line of the movie is almost a direct quote..."I love being a Turtle!"

It also does a nice job of showing very different personalities for all the Turtles with Leo introspective and angst-ridden, Raphael angry and very much a loner, Michelangelo more interested in having a good time than taking things seriously, and Donatello more interested in his gadgetry than interacting with his brothers.

The fights were very well done. They had a lot of what was fun about the first couple of movies with Turtle team-up moves, lots of superhuman attacks and hits, and classic lines. For example, Michelangelo had been bragging on the Night Watcher and how he had cool equipment including jet packs. When they are battling the first of the 13 monsters and are backed up against the edge of the structure with nowhere to go he says, "See? This is why we need jet packs!" It is a classic moment.

The movie does a good job of mixing action with moving the story along as Winters strives to undo the damage he did 3000 years before (although for monsters who have "plagued mankind to this day", the monsters seem pretty docile and unimportant), the Foot and Turtles re encounter one another, the Turtles strive to re-unite, and the audience gets to remember what makes the Turtles so much fun.

The graphics are incredible. The animators really must be commended for an exceptional job. So, too did the story writers do well to provide us all with a few moments with our favorite Turtle as all of them have their chance to shine at various points in the movie.

All in all it is a visual feast and a very diverting couple of hours.

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