TMNT Is The Turtles Movie You SHOULD Be WatchingPosted: August 9, 2014
It seems that the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is on pace for $65 million this weekend, which is a depressing number given the apparent artistic failure of the movie overall. While I’ve never been a particularly passionate fan of the franchise (it falls in with Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers as one of those things I lost interest in after age 7) I do recognize the hunger for a good, modern take of the characters on film. Funnily enough though, it seems we already got one of those, and no one seemed to care about it. I’m talking about 2007’s TMNT, which is not only a solid story with fun characters and action, but also presents the Turtles in animated form, where they’ve always seemed most at home. Having finally watched it this weekend, I’m doubly disappointed that TMNT did not become the definitive cinematic Turtles movie for this generation of kids.
The biggest selling point here is that the characters are distinctive and well-defined, with the natural conflict among the group used to great effect… something that should always be the primary focus of any Turtles story (or any story period, really). The whole narrative is driven both by Leonardo’s drive to become a proper leader for the group, and by Raphael’s headstrong aggression that’s lead him to take up a Batman-esque vigilante persona to fight bad guys. The conflict between the two comes to a terrific head with a great fight scene, one that should’ve been a huge thrill for longtime devotees of the series (and is really well-crafted to boot). This conflict reflects not only the differences between Leo and Raph, but also their different relationships with Master Splinter, and their respective influences Donatello and Michelangelo, and so this is where the story wisely focuses. While the others don’t get as much screentime as Leo and Raph, we still get a clear sense of them through their interactions with the more prominent characters.
The supporting cast also has their own agency and goals that happen to coincide with the Turtles’. April O’Neil doesn’t go to Central America (where Leo is training at the start) specifically looking for Leo, but stumbles upon him; and Casey Jones has already taken up crimefighting on his own before he teams up with Raph. Both have their own goals and actions that are not dependent on the Turtles or each other, and they also have a bickering but sweet relationship besides. This helps give the story the sort of expanded scope that many adventure films seem to lack (indeed, the new live-action movie sounds like it’s fallen prey to the everything-is-connected-and-everyone-knows-everybody syndrome you can also find in the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, among many others).
Furthermore the villain is also an intriguing and sympathetic character whose goals are much more distinctive than the usual world domination stuff. In fact he’s not actually trying to do anything evil, but is trying to atone for mistakes he made a long, LONG time ago (but does make an unfortunate alliance with the Foot Clan in order to do so). Particularly his conflict with his ancient stone-encased brethren also serves as interesting reflection of the Turtles, both as examples of brotherhood and central conflicts between the leader and his headstrong second. It’s also an appropriately fantastical and supernatural threat that jives much better with the Turtles’ kung-fu background.
Animation is also the best style for these characters, I think; it might be close-minded of me to say given the recent success of a movie featuring a talking raccoon in space, but that’s my bias and I’m fine with that. I do not have the same affection for the old live-action movies as many of my peers, and have no interest in seeing the newer variety, because to me this sort of concept works best as an animated film, where the stylized depictions of the humans offsets the absurdity of the Turtles themselves. It’s also good to see a clear kids movie that is able to avoid being overtly pandering to their child patrons; the humor might be a bit goofy but the plot still takes itself seriously. It serves as a reminder not only of good storytelling instincts but also how kids movies need not talk down to their audience.
I was disappointed I never saw TMNT when it came out and that feeling is multiplied now; I think we would’ve been much better off if we’d had three or four of these movies out there than the obnoxious (and dumb-looking) garbage that we’ve been handed this weekend. But mostly it’s just disappointing that director Kevin Munroe won’t get to explore his vision of the Turtles any further, as it was one that I would’ve liked to revisit. But at least we have this one solid film that can hopefully be a touchstone for some new creator down the line. In the meanwhile, maybe I’ll give that new Nickelodeon cartoon a look someday…