Teenage Mutant Ninja life lessons

What would you pay to be a child again, even just for 87 minutes? How about $9?

This weekend saw the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, TMNT, and it’s everything you would expect from a computer-animated film resurrecting one of the most beloved cartoon franchises of our generation’s childhood.

For the few out there who never got in on the turtle phenomenon, here’s a quick cheat sheet: Four turtles get exposed to some spooky mutagenic ooze and rapidly grow into humanoid creatures with the personalities of excitable teenagers. Forced to live in hiding in the sewers of New York, the turtles train with their master, Splinter — a mutated, humanoid rat who either belonged to a ninjitsu master or was a ninjitsu master, depending on who you ask. The turtles bind together as a crime-fighting team, fighting all sorts of cartoon foes — aliens, immortal ninjas, monsters, etc. — and generally have a good time doing it. Oh, and they also really like pizza.

The turtles originally debuted in an independent comic book in 1984. Their adventures have been chronicled sporadically in print ever since, but the medium in which most current highschool and college students first got their turtle fix was the animated TV show, which started in 1987. Three live-action Turtles films came out in the early ’90s, and all were big successes; the cartoon show went on to last until 1996, with a second series airing in 2003 that appears on Saturday mornings to this day.

The Turtles were also the core of a notorious merchandising bonanza, and a quick walk through a Toys “R” Us today would prove that this is still very much the case. Nevertheless, the new movie is clearly trying to bring old fans back into the fold, as well as introducing new ones to the world and story.

What’s interesting about TMNT is that it’s not a redone origin story, like so many other comic book movies that have come out recently. Instead, TMNT plunges you right into the newest chapter of the story. Very little backstory is given: A bit of narration at the beginning sets up the history behind the latest foe, and includes probably two sentences shedding some light on the turtles themselves. And seriously, if you haven’t already been introduced to the concept of mutant ninja turtles, why are you sitting in this movie theater?

The story begins thousands of years ago, when a powerful warlord and his generals were struck by a cosmic blast, cursing them with immortality. The cosmic blast also opened some sort of portal, unleashing thirteen beasts that would rampage across the planet for ages.

We then move to present-day Central America, where Leonardo, head of the turtles, is soul-searching to develop his leadership skills. He doesn’t want to come home because he feels he cannot return without some concrete evidence that he is a better leader. Unfortunately for Leonardo, his brothers aren’t exactly getting along swimmingly in his absence.

Donatello the tech geek and Michelangelo the party animal have both taken on jobs to fill the space in their lives that crime-fighting used to occupy. In a cute twist, Donatello is working 24/7 tech support over the phone, and Michelangelo is entertaining at children’s birthday parties, wearing a giant foam turtle head. The world does not, of course, know that the turtles exist.

The third brother, Raphael, is not satisfied sitting idle while crime runs free. He’s taken on a new persona, the Nightwatcher, to dole out vigilante justice as the others try to make an honest buck.

When Leonardo returns to lead the team against a new foe — it seems a wealthy industrialist is trying to resurrect the stone generals and reopen the portal — things don’t go as smoothly as he had hoped. The turtles are out of practice and Raphael has a problem following orders.

The bulk of the movie revolves around Leonardo and Raphael rebuilding their broken friendship more than the evil mastermind and his minions scouring New York for mythical beasts. As a result, the movie feels far more mature and realistic, which is a great feat to accomplish for a movie about crime-fighting ninja turtles.

Artistically, the movie is nearly perfect. The animation has a cohesive visual style that is heavily influenced by comic books and not so much by reality. Think Pixar’s The Incredibles, complete with spindly women and absurdly broad-shouldered men. The coloring is gritty — this isn’t a Saturday morning cartoon by any means — and some of the effects are masterful. One fight occurs in the rain, and during the scene every close-up has a convincing watery sheen over all the surfaces.

The voice work, too, is well done, with many big-name actors voicing the human roles. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart, and Chris Evans all play major parts, even though the voices of the turtles themselves are all by veteran voice actors whom no one has ever really heard of. The problem with the voice work, and sound design overall, is that it’s not punchy enough. The score (which is nothing special, though it serves its purpose) is mixed too loudly, and the sound effects aren’t mixed high enough. The result sounds muddy and doesn’t feel like it’s “present” in the theater.

Still, TMNT provides a rewarding, nostalgic look back at an influential franchise from our formative years. It’s fun, quirky, and doesn’t have any big statements about the nature of humanity or the futility of life — it’s just a bunch of turtles trying to find their place in the world.