I have a very clear memory of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's "arrival" in pop culture. Although I'd never read the original comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, it was some time in 1987 that I caught the animated series, and while I thought it was tongue-in-cheek amusing enough, I figured I was just a few years too old to get well and truly "geeked out" by the animated amphibians' adventures. I chuckled when I came across all the TMNT books, videos, toys and video games, but I never really felt a connection to the green guys. (OK, I played the arcade game a whole lot, I admit it.)
And then came the live-action movies (1990, 1991 and 1993), two of which I actually saw theatrically, and a third one that I've managed to avoid for the last thirteen years. (Let's just say I'm not a big fan of the flicks.) So while I'm certainly not a "know-nothing novice" when it comes to the cash cow that are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I definitely wouldn't call myself a huge fan, either. I exist in that "live and let live" gray area, and it's there that I neither love nor dislike the pizza-chompin', skate-boardin', slang-slingin' crime-stoppers ... who are also giant, mutated, kung fu tortoises, of course.
Having said that, I quite enjoyed Kevin Munroe's all-new and very slickly animated TMNT. It's colorfully kinetic enough to please the new (young) fans, while maintaining just enough fanboy touchstones to keep the established (old) fans entertained. It's brief, it's boisterous, it's got a surprisingly entertaining screenplay, it's gorgeous to look at, and it's got three or four action scenes that are pretty damn dazzling. Basically, it's great to see Pixar-style CGI magic being used for slightly more "mature" material. That's not to say that there's anything too nasty or unpleasant found in TMNT, but neither is it a cuddly little festival of family-friendly fluff, either.
The plot is your standard comic book affair: The turtles have semi-disbanded. Leonardo is off training in a distant jungle while his three brothers (Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael) are left to putter around in New York. Don and Mike have taken to silly promotional gigs (not unlike the gang did in Ghostbusters 2) and Raph prowls the New York streets as a crime-bashing vigilante. But when old pals April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Casey Jones (Chris Evans) and Master Splinter (Mako) decide that the turtle rift has become too large, they step in to remind they guys what teamwork is all about. Of course these lessons arrive just in time, because the evil Foot Clan is up to a whole new batch of no-good.
Clearly we're not talking Shakespeare here, but taken at face value, the new-fangled TMNT is quite a lot better than what I'd expected prior to the screening. There's a whole bunch of fan-friendly in-jokes and references, the action sequences are really rather stunning, and the screenplay (while a bit too dramatic on occasion, all things considered) is packed with witty gags, crazy mayhem, and a few little morality tales that are presented with a small degree of subtlety. It's basically just an animated action-fest that'll thrill the old fans, enlist a few new ones, and confuse the holy hell out of the people who just can't wrap their brains around a concept this goofy. We are, after all, talking about giant turtles who can speak, skateboard, and kick some serious villain butt.
So I guess you can take this is a surprised-yet-spirited recommendation from a geek who knows (and kinda likes) the Turtles, but in no way considers himself an enthusiast of the series. I admire the fact that a concept this outlandish has become a bona-fide pop culture phenomenon -- and I'm always down for a new action movie -- but like I said: the TMNT craze hit the scene just a few years too late for someone my age ... which makes my reaction to this new movie all the more pleasantly surprising.
Gone is the lame-o animation from the cartoon series and (thankfully) absent is the really broad sense of humor found in the live-action movies. I wouldn't go as far as to call TMNT a "dark" movie, but Munroe and company clearly take these characters somewhat seriously. And without that approach, we'd still be looking at just another collection of corny, campy, kitschy, half-shelled Turtle escapades. Bang out a few more movies like this one, however, and I'll happily join the freaky fanbase. (For a perspective from a passionate movie nerd who is also a longtime TMNT supporter, check out this review by Mr. Erik Davis.)