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Saturday, March 24, 2007

TMNT (**1/2)

March 24, 2007
I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid but I never got into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles like others did. I liked the few issues of the original comics by Eastman and Laird I read more than the more popular cartoon that followed. The comics were dark and violent, not so much watered down with the faux-cool, late 80's-early 90's surfer vibe ("Cowabunga, dude!") that was used to reel in the kiddies. Bart Simpson stopped saying "Cowabunga!" a year after The Simpsons debuted because the writers quickly figured out it's lame. The Ninja Turtles still say it. It's still lame. The first Ninja Turtles movie in 1990 with the turtle costumes designed by the Jim Henson Company was pretty good for its time, but the sequels got worse and worse. And that's my history with the Turtles in a nutshell. Or half-shell.
TMNT is a compromise: the gritty look and action of the original Ninja Turtles concept is preserved and yet the movie is safe for the Chuck E. Cheese crowd. The CGI animation by Imagini is excellent. The movie is great looking but a little dull. I wasn't digging the story so much and found it difficult to maintain interest in what was going on. But by the time Raphael and Leonardo had the fight on the rooftop they'd been building to the entire movie, I realized in that respect the movie was working. Leonardo as the prodigal leader returning to bring his brothers back together and Raphael as the angry, insecure brother left behind are the only characters in the movie with arcs. Everyone else is a supporting character, including Donatello and Michaelangelo. The plot of 3,000 year old warriors and interdimensional monsters was pretty neat but seemed too big for the four Ninja Turtles with their katana swords, nunchucks, sais, and wooden bo staff to handle. They handled it anyway and it all turned out all right.
The voice over acting is terrific. The cast was a Futurama jambearoo with John DiMaggio, Billy West, and Phil LaMarr contributing voices. Of the celebrity hired guns, Patrick Stewart as the Immortal villain Winters, Zhang Ziyi struggling to win her tongue-wrestling match with her English dialogue as the leader of the Foot clan, and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a much hotter-designed April O'Neil than expected were standouts. But what made me happiest was Mako as Splinter. He wasn't given a lot of dialogue, nor was it much more than the usual "wise, old sensei" cliches, but it's Mako and Mako was great. I especially loved the beat when Splinter shuffles into the kitchen to get tea, humming a Japanese ditty, unaware of the latest royal screw up by his Turtles. I think this was Mako's last cinematic role before he died last year. There wasn't enough Splinter in the movie. I love that wise old rat.