The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is considerably darker in tone than the three martial arts fests that preceded it. Indeed, the tone is a lot more like the original, not-for-kids comics – though not quite so dark as to lose the PG-13 rating.
Laurence Fishburne narrates the opening backstory to the film – how an ancient warlord became immortal at the expense of his armies [which were turned to stone] and over time, came to regret his actions and desire to set things right. From there we jump into the now dysfunctional world of the Turtles.
Leonardo [voiced by James Arnold Taylor] is off in the South American jungles training to become a better leader – and helping powerless villagers deal with corrupt freedom fighters. Michelangelo [Mikey Kelly] hires himself out as a kids’ party entertainer called Cowabunga Bob [who usually gets beast on with nerf nunchuks]. Donatello [Mitchell Whitfield] is stuck in a dead-end IT tech support job. Only Raphael [Nolan North] is actually doing something, but that something is playing scare-the-crap-nighttime-avenger, tackling the city’s crime as the Night Watcher.
April O’Neil [Sarah Michelle Gellar] has gone from reporter to finder of ancient artifacts, in a company with her boyfriend, Casey Jones [Chris Evans] – and while chasing down a remarkable ancient statue for Max Winters [Patrick Stewart], runs into Leo and persuades him to come home. Unfortunately, even with the presence of Master Splinter [Mako, in one of his last roles], things are not good at Turtles central. Eventually, things boil over and Leo and Raff come to blows – which leads to Leo’s being captured by the now living statues that Winters has assembled [said statues being his generals three thousand years before…].
Even though The Shredder is dead, The foot Clan puts in an appearance, helping Winters and his stone generals find and entrap thirteen monsters that came into the world back when he became immortal. Unfortunately, winters has a problem with his generals, who do not want send the monsters back and return to a mortal state…
TMNT does a nice job of walking the line between the truly dark tone of the original comic and the much later tone of the various children’s cartoon series and the martial movies that featured Jackie Chan’s stunt team as the Turtles. The thirteen monsters are very cool looking, and the stone generals have a truly imposing presence.
Overall, the CGI is of high quality – the various fight sequences are all extremely impressive. The plot is, perhaps, a bit complicated for younger kids, but the target audience [13 and up – and comics geeks like myself] should no real difficulty following it.
The characters of the Turtles haven’t changed much, though they wind up being considerably more mature than before by film’s end [though, with the turtles, “mature” is a very relative term…]. In terms of voicing, the gentlemen who voice the Turtles are extremely good. Chris Evans gives Casey a nice balance of domestic and crazy, while Sarah Michelle Gellar contributes almost nothing to the role of April [a veteran voice actor like, say, Grey Delisle, would have been a much better choice – sometimes the best voice for the job is not a celebrity].
On the other hand, Ziyi Zhang works really well as Karai, the current leader of the foot Clan. Her silky delivery exudes just the right amount of quiet menace to make us believe the character when she predicts future, nastier, encounters with the Turtles. And Mako gives Master Splinter just the right combination of gravity and mischief…
Overall, TMNT is better than the three live-action films that preceded it. It’s well paced; full of interesting [and occasionally scary] beasties; fun characters and striking situations. It’s stressing of family over all else is the kind of message that will gain parents’ approval, and the whole adventure of the thing will draw in viewers of all ages. TMNT has to balance too many elements – including tone – for it to be perfect, but it is a rush.