Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review - TMNT

Last year we had Miami Vice, later this year we will be treated to Michael Bay’s take on Transformers, and now the latest stage in cinema’s current 80’s craze is with us. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a most peculiar phenomenon; four human-sized amphibious creatures who dwelled in the sewers of New York after an encounter with some toxic waste had turned them into crime fighters with a fondness for pizza. To add to the overall sense of weirdness, each turtle was named after a Renaissance-era artist, and they were guided in their heroic deeds by their sensei, a large Japanese rat named Splinter.

This bizarre mix of elements proved to be a winning formula, with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s underground comic suddenly exploding into the biggest franchise of the decade. A cartoon series followed, with action figures flying off the shelves, and the Turtles’ images soon started appearing on everything from t-shirts to video games to lunchboxes. A surprisingly decent live-action film was one of 1990’s box-office hits, before two progressively worse sequels finally seemed to bring their extraordinary reign to something of a close.

Now the green heroes are back on the big screen, 14 years after their last feature film.
TMNT is a film which hopes to extend the Turtles’ appeal to a new generation of younger viewers while simultaneously capitalising on nostalgic twenty and thirty-somethings who are keen to relive their youth; but a misty-eyed view of the past can’t overlook this movie’s numerous failings. TMNT jettisons the impressive Jim Henson-created suits of the earlier pictures in favour of a complete CGI overhaul, but the story hasn’t received anything like as much attention as the aesthetics, and the result is a tepid, slapdash picture which never comes to life.

Time has not been kind to the central foursome, and their brotherhood is showing signs of strain at the movie’s start. Leonardo, the nominal leader of the group, has been away from New York for some time, being sent by Splinter to the dense jungle of Central America in order to hone his leadership skills. He spends most his time protecting local villagers from nasty clichéd bandits, and one day he bumps into former news reporter April O’Neil. She has turned her back on TV work and reinvented herself as some sort of archaeologist, running a precious artefacts service with boyfriend Casey Jones, and she fills Leo in on his brothers’ current positions.

Donatello is now stuck in a dull tech support job, Michelangelo spends his afternoons being beaten up at children’s parties while dressed as a cartoon turtle, and Raphael just sleeps all day - although he, unbeknownst to the others, actually spends his nights fighting crime as a vigilante called The Nightwatcher. Soon the brothers must swing back into action when the ridiculously tedious plot kicks into gear. An immortal billionaire resurrects a group of stone statues and hires Shredder’s former ninjas to recapture some monsters he unleashed 3,000 years ago in a series of dull flashbacks. Apparently these monsters have been terrorizing earth for the last three millennia even though nobody seems to have noticed them until now.

Writer/director Kevin Munroe’s screenplay lacks any sense of coherence or logic, and it arbitrarily switches direction frequently during the film’s uninvolving 90 minutes.
TMNT takes an age to get its central narrative into motion, with masses of exposition to wade through in the early stages, and it never really raises itself beyond a certain level of mediocrity. The film offers glimpses of a more interesting story when it focuses on the damaged relationship between Leonardo and Raphael, but that’s the only time it ever looks like bringing anything new to the party. The fight scenes are a particular disappointment; with the beautifully rendered CGI animation on show being let down by bad direction and cluttered editing which too often obscures the action.

There’s a distinct lack of excitement about this whole movie and, unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of charm too. The Turtles themselves are a success; they have been well crafted by the animators and each of them has their own clearly defining characteristic, but Donatello and Michelangelo may as well not exist for the way Munroe sidelines them and focuses on the central animosity between Leonardo and Raphael. Elsewhere, the animation of the human characters is simply appalling. April O’Neil and Casey Jones are all elongated bodies, angular faces and twisted mouths, with poor Casey being lumbered with an enormous chin and a strange blue-ish tint to his hair. None of the supporting characters really make much of an impact; Patrick Stewart’s Max Winters is an unmemorable nemesis, and Zhiyi Zhang’s halting delivery in her second language does her ninja character no favours.

Instead of building to a big finale,
TMNT throws in a crazily incoherent climax in which the lack of a decent central villain is telling. Characters suddenly swap allegiances, things start blowing up, and April baffling turns into The Bride from Kill Bill - but the whole thing is a stunningly boring show. TMNT’s generic action and complete dearth of wit leaves the film looking like a wasted opportunity, and there’s only one moment which gives the film the shot of life it so desperately needs. The scene is a rooftop showdown between Leonardo and Raphael, with their bottled-up frustrations finally coming to the fore while the rain pours down - it’s a smashing sequence, but that’s all we get. TMNT tentatively hints at some semblance of depth underneath its glossy sheen, and then it decides to play it safe instead, crawling back into a shell which is as blandly anonymous as any other.