After the original movie series had devolved into broad slapstick, time travel and the dead eyed thousand yard stare of stripped back animatronic, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise needed some time to step back, recharge it’s batteries and band together a brand new approach to put our heroes in a half-shell back on top where they once proudly stood. Not unsurprisingly, the more cost effective method of CGI was finally chosen over the cost of keeping four, diminutive martial artists from dying of dehydration while being entombed within thick, rubber turtle costumes and with that, TMNT was born…. and then promptly forgotten after making decent box office but hardly a ripple in that glassy pond known as cultural significance. What happened to make such a potentially lucrative concept curl up into it’s shell, generally be ignored by the world at large and vanish like a ninja in a puff of smoke?
Years after finally defeating their arch enemy, Shredder (it’s never made clear if the animated movie is referencing the live action ones), the four turtle brothers eventually grew apart as time went on. Wannabe leader Leonardo was sent off to Central America to finish his training (bit weird, that) and decided not to return; hothead Raphael, on the other hand, wounded by Leo’s reluctance to return now prowls the streets in disguise as dollar store Batman ripoff The Night Watcher and spends his night walloping criminals senseless. In comparison, Donatello and Michelangelo have taken on earning a wage with the former working on an I.T. helpline while the latter scrapes together a living putting on a foam turtle suit and having kids kick the crap out of him as a children’s party entertainer.
While the boys eek their way through an existence that’s hardly what they were destined for, a powerful industrialist named Winters has gathered together five ancient statues for a mystical purpose that’s way too drawn out for me to be bothered to spell out here, so these are the bullet points: 1) Winters is immortal, 2) The statues are actually his enchanted generals, 3) the spell that caused this happened 3000 years ago and also unleashed 13 monsters onto the earth… look, it sounds better coming from Lawrence Fishburne, alright?
If Winters can capture the monsters before the planets align again he can reverse everything he’s caused and spend his well earned retirement finally being dead, but his trusted stone generals prove to be not that trustworthy after all when they realise that they LIKE being rocky immortals (different strokes for different folks, I guess) and so the turtles have to set aside their differences and become a team once again in order to stop New York becoming ground zero for monsterpalooza.
Despite the fact that you can feel the filmmakers honestly trying to create something epic while using a different medium, TMNT feels much more like a sketchy pilot for a TV series than a full-fledged relaunch of a beloved franchise. Much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it acts like a “real” movie and it sounds like a “real” movie, but because it lacks the polish of, say, a Pixar release, it can’t help but feel incredibly small scale despite the swollen cast and large amounts of monsters that the film hurls at you in a concentrated act to feel epic.
Sure, the characters are well rendered and the surrounding are lush (especially during some dramatic rainfall), but some erratic lip syncing and some weight free animation thwarts any ambition the film has of being held on the same level as their live-action counterparts.
The film admirably tries to pull a texas switch by adding some much needed weight into the characterization instead and it’s here where the movie manages to succeed the most.
Having the turtles be in disarray is actually a great way to reintroduce us to their colour coded charms and the film drops in some oddly mature plot points. Having Leonardo taking out guerillas in the steaming jungles of Central America feels like that the story has missed a trick by not having a Ninja Turtle sneak into the compound of a Pablo Escobar style drugs barron and garroting him in his sleep. Also, a scene involving Leo and Raph finally taking out years of frustration on each other and actually coming to blows on a rainy rooftop has a level of emotion not usually seen in in the franchise since the orginal where Leo watched over his coma-ized brother.
The Turtles are once again accurately represented (although Raph sounds weirdly reminiscent of fiery stand-up Bill Burr) but the appearance of April O’Neil and hockey masked bruiser Casey Jones (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans further adding to his impressive comic book resume) feel way off. However, the real issue subbonly keeping the movie a rat hair away from greatness is how little effect the lean, green machines curiously have on their own story. The main plot barely has anything to do with our heroes and trundles along without them as it patiently waits for our amphibian leads to catch up (brainbox Donatello must be off his game somewhat) with the antagonists driving the entire story while everyone if left react as quickly as a napping octogenarian.
The film is also packed with characters it simply just doesn’t need in order to pad out it’s needlessly complicated back story and it only serves to take much needed time from the four leads (the misunderstood Winters isn’t even aware the Turtles exist until the climax is well under way) and the story demands often rudely shoves the gang aside for the weirdest of reasons. Why the hell do we need as many as 13 monsters to collect like some half-assed version of a property destroying Pokemon Go if we skip over the capturing of almost all of them in a montage that has the Foot clan doing all the work – that’s right; in a film that requires ninjas to fight a wide array of exotic creatures, the decision was made to NOT have the turtles re-bond over the whupping of monstrous butt and instead have their mortal enemies do the heavy lifting instead. And while we’re on the subject of illogical plot holes concerning the Foot; if the clan has fallen on hard times, why is there still fucking hundreds of them?
Odd filmmaking decisions aside, TMNT still is a solid entry in the franchise that still treats the four bandana-ed bad boys with respect, it’s just a shame that the overarching plot squeezes them out like the wrong kind of turtle head…