Pity poor Kevin Munroe. The writer/director had the unenviable task of crafting a coherent and, his studio masters hoped, successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.
While comic book superhero films are always something of a challenge, seeing as their makers are often tasked with boiling decades worth of stories from several different media into a single story, in a way the turtles present an even greater challenge, as their fan base is so wildly divergent. There’s the adult fans of the original dark, violent indie comic book series. There’s the younger adult fan base who grew up with the cartoon and toys of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And then there are all the little kids who are fans of the current turtles cartoons and toys.
Munroe attacks the problem head on, trying to make his film all things to all fans. Trying to please everyone is almost always a recipe for disaster.
Now congratulate Kevin Munroe, because he succeeds wildly with the new TMNT, the fourth turtles film, and the first in fourteen years.
Rather than re-starting the franchise ala Batman Begins, Munroe wisely moves far forward, as if the turtles have moved on with their lives over the course of the last few years in the same way that American pop culture has moved on without them. Whether your primary experience with the turtles was the comics, the cartoons or the movies (or, more likely, a combination of all three), this movie fits neatly into all of their continuities. Assuming we all know the story–turtles, can of radioactive ooze, trained as ninjas, fight a guy named The Shredder–Munroe alludes to it in narration, and then moves on to a new story.
It’s some time later, The Shredder has been defeated, and the turtles’ extended family has grown apart. Leonardo is hanging out in a jungle doing some lone wolf training exercise. April O’Neil and her boyfriend/part-time vigilante Casey Jones have gone into the Indiana Jones business. Michelangelo has taken a job pretending to be a guy in a turtle suit working kids’ parties. Donatello does tech services over the phone (See, those voices aren’t all coming from India). And Raphael alone continues the struggle against evil and/or New York City street crime, adopting a disguise and superheroic persona “The Nightwatcher.”
The distance in the turtle family is the main conflict, although it’s set against a more traditional superheroic one involving saving the world. This is laid out in a clumsy narrated opening sequence, which is essentially just an animated version of a pitch for a new ninja turtles movie. It involves an immortal general from thousands of years ago, his brotherhood of cursed warriors, a portal to a different dimension, and thirteen monsters. Can the turtles get their shit together in time to save the day?
Okay, not much suspense there, but it’s still pretty fun to watch.
Computer animation is a perfect medium for these characters; no unconvincing rubber suits, or trying to fit computer generated-characters into a real world environment, which is still a pretty dicey proposition. The character design on all of the human characters is awfully close to that of The Incredibles, which is a pretty slick move (If you gotta steal, steal from the best, right?), and the turtles are flexible enough in design that when they strike bad-ass poses or lurk in the shadows they resemble the original Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird designs, but when they’re goofing around they resemble the cartoon characters.
The animation also allows the heroes and their enemies to move like ninjas, and that’s probably the greatest visual thrill of the film, watching characters practically disappear off-frame when they move, and bouncing around gritty urban skylines like super bounce balls. (That knock-out teaser trailer, of the four turtles lightly bounding over rooftops? It’s unfortunately mostly MIA; parts of it appear over the beginning and ending voiceovers, and nothing in the film itself actually approaches that level of thrilling grace).
Munroe solved the “How Cowabunga should I make it?” problem by essentially designating Michelangelo as the franchise’s goofiness magnet. There’s ridiculously extreme sewer skateboarding, strange pizza topping eating and spaced-out surfer lingo, but it’s all on Michelangelo to pull off; at times he seems like he just came in from an entirely different movie, and at other times he seems a little brain-damaged, but the kids at my screening laughed at everything he said or did, and the fact that Munroe made that whole take on the turtles one character’s personality strikes me as an elegant solution.
The film’s rated PG, which means there’s a lot less punching, kicking, stabbing and beating-people-about-the-head-with-sporting-goods than I’d have liked. (A massive ninja war against the turtles and their friends versus scores of Foot Clan ninjas, for example, barely has time to register before we move on–and the climax comes awfully quickly).
But then, Munroe wasn’t making a film for me personally; he was making it for everyone. And I think he succeeded as well as he possibly could have.