Back to the Sewers: TMNT (2007)

 

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14 years following Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 the turtles were finally back on top.  The new cartoon series that started in 2003 was building in popularity.  While the turtles had not yet regained the height of it’s popularity from the late 80’s, they were a strong enough name in 2007 to warrant a new movie.  This time, however, the turtles would forgo the now expensive animatronics for a fully animated movie.  Big name movie stars like Patrick Stewart and Sarah Michelle Gelleher were called in to do voice-overs for this installment.  It had all the inklings of being the next Turtles smash hit.  However, that didn’t turn out to be the case…

 

Origin

As with many of the Turtles sequels, it stumbles out the gate at the conception stage.  Going into this movie, news sources were conflicted about when and what continuity this movie took place in.  Some claimed it was a reboot, some said it was part of the Turtles’ movie franchise, others thought it was linked to the cartoon that was running at the time.  The opening of the movie makes it clear that this is not a truly stand alone turtles movie, so we’ll indulge a moment to bust some of these theories.

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Reboot

The opening sequence states that the Turtles have already defeated their greatest enemy the Shredder.  It also glazes over the turtles’ origin with very little detail — because these are things the audience already knows.  If this movie was intended as a full-fledged reboot, this was a poor way to start it off.  Also, the turtles having pre-established relationships with April and Casey in this movie seems to refute that.

It’s possible the writers just wanted to tell this story first and double-back to the origin story and the Shredder later, but that is not the most obvious choice when conceptualizing a reboot.  The idea of doubling-back to the Shredder also conflicts with Karai sequel-baiting the Shredder’s return at the end of the movie.

In essence, this doesn’t appear to be a reboot, as it is clearly working in a universe already in motion.

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Following Movie Canon

Evidence to this movie following the chronology after Turtles 3 exists in the form of the scepter appearing in Splinter’s trophy room at the end of the movie.  However, several details seem to contradict that.  For starters, the turtles are inexplicably in a more traditional sewer lair, rather than the abandoned subway from the previous two movies.  The relationship between April and Casey also feels odd following the third film since Casey’s absence in the second film, and lack of interaction with April in the third seemed to imply the two were not necessarily an item.  These details, however can be over-looked if you consider Turtles 3 and Secret of the Ooze as non-canonical to the movie timeline.

April’s development between films, however is the so striking it is difficult to overlook.  None of the films imply to any degree that April gave up her job as a news reporter — the only exception being Turtles 3, which only failed to reference her job directly.  What’s more, there was little to indicate that April would drop her day job for an archaeological expedition to South America.  Even if her trip back in time in the third movie awakened some deep inner need to explore historical findings, it would make more sense if she was investigating artifacts from Japan, the area she traveled to in that movie.  What’s more, she’s apparently had enough time to train with a katana to be a match Karai — the current head of the foot clan who in most continuities was trained in ninjitsu since birth.  Somehow it seems like too much of a stretch for April make this many drastic changes, especially if the turtles are still considered teenagers.

In summary, if many of the details of this movie don’t directly contradict the movie continuity, April’s odd change in direction in the relatively short amount of time does.

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2003 Script or Tie-in

While this is still a rumor, it seems to be the most logical conclusion based on the backstory of the movie.  The rumor states that the movie was drawn from an abandoned script for the 2003 cartoon series.  Presumably, TMNT’s script would pick up somewhere around the 3rd or 4th seasons of the show while Leonardo is separated from the others to train.  This more easily explains Leonardo’s presence in the jungle.  Also, April spent much of the 2003 show either unemployed or self-employed, running her late father’s antique shop; thus, an expedition to a far off country to look for old relics is a little more plausible for someone with a more flexible schedule and a penchant for antiques already.  Also, April learning to defend herself was touched upon a few times over the course of the 2003 series, so it’s less of a stretch to say that she can use a katana as well as Karai.

Karai, however, is the crucial evidence to this theory however.  In TMNT,Leonardo acts as though he knows Karai during their first encounter, and Karai seems familiar with the turtles as well.  At this point, Karai’s appearances in media consisted of her original appearances in the original comics, a couple of video games, and the 2003 cartoon.  Karai was not shown or referenced at any point in the movies up to this point.  Therefore, any ties to the movies seem unlikely, and ties to the cartoon are far more plausible in this scenario.

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Story and Script

Regardless of the origins of the plot, it focuses around the turtles’ estranged relationship after Leonardo leaves the team for an extended period — in particular the relationship between Leonardo and Raphael.  This was a stroke of genius for this movie.  Leonardo and Raphael are frequently at odds with each other, both in movies and in most of the cartoons.  Usually, however, their dysfunction is a background element to some other major action going on.  In this movie, it is the emotional core.  Raphael’s feelings of resentment and abandonment are understandable and can be related to.  Leonardo’s confusion at Raphael’s reaction to Leonardo not only leaving, but coming back carries through and is also relatable.  The two coming to blows over their differences in ideals and opinions is something that really carries and resonates throughout this movie.

Oh, I’m sorry… that was the B plot.

The main plot, which isn’t fully revealed until the third act, focuses on millionaire philanthropist Max Winters.  Winters is actually an ancient commander who used a cosmic event to summon a hoard powerful monsters and become immortal.  This came at the cost of turning his other generals to stone.  After many centuries, he regrets his decision and hires April O’ Neil and the Foot Clan to help undo his terrible curse.  He is betrayed by his brothers-in-arms however, who see their immortal stone form as preferable to death.  It’s an interesting dynamic that tries to parallel the relationship between Leonardo, Raphael and the other turtles, but is unfortunately not as interesting.  Since we are not given all of this information until nearly the end of the movie, we have little investment in Winters and his friends.

Strangely enough, this is the first story synopsis where I’ve talked specifically about the turtles, so we may as well cover them next…

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The Turtles

The turtles are realized this time in CG animated form.  The turtles are leaner than previous incarnations, and have a tendency to hop and dart around more often, most likely to take advantage of the engine that rendered the movie.  The turtles are easily the best looking parts of the movie, as despite the change in physique, they look very similar to turtles from previous movies.  Of all the movies they tend to be most similar to the Secret of the Ooze models, but even then they are only vaguely shaped that way.  Each turtle still has their own unique style and appearance, which is nice to see.

Unlike previous movies however, the turtles’ relationship plays a large role in the plot, so I will need to spend some time discussing them.

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Leonardo 

This is the first turtles sequel to get Leonardo’s personality accurate, as well as the first turtles movie to portray him as flawed.  Leonardo had left the team in order to train and become a strong leader, but apparently never figured out when was the right time to come back.  Leo returns not sure of what he’s learned, and trying to simply go back to the way things once were between him and his brothers.  Leonardo is also shown to be both stubborn and self-righteous, refusing to believe he’s done anything to hurt any of his brothers until Raph finally bears all.  Leonardo in some ways becomes the antagonist of the B plot, though never by his own intention.

It’s not exactly clear if Leonardo learns anything from this movie, since he spends the tail end of it captured, but the impact of his fight with Raphael reverberates throughout.  Leo, despite his flaws, really isn’t the turtle that needs to grow in this film though.  That responsibility falls to…

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Raphael

While this is still another “Raph has a temper that’s out of control” type story arc, this movie gives Raph plenty of reasons to be angry.  Also, unlike previous installments, Raph actually faces consequences of his actions and seems to grow from them.  From his admittance of his folly to Master Splinter, to taking charge of the situation in order to save Leonardo, Raphael proves by the end of the movie that he understands his mistake, and wants to make amends for it.  The climax is more about Raphael’s redemption than Max Winter’s, which is another reason the turtle storyline is far more compelling in this installment.

 

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Unfortunately, the heavy focus on Leo and Raph leaves Donatello and Michealangelo with little to do again.

Donatello does contribute somewhat to the plot, as it’s briefly mentioned he is the stand-in leader during Leonardo’s absence.  However, it’s made abundantly clear through his interactions that he does not have the leadership skills to keep Raphael in line.  He berates Raphael, but does not look any further into what Raphael is up to or provide Raph any reasonable alternatives.  Aside from being another flawed turtle, Donatello is in charge of approximately half the exposition in this installment, a role he shares with April.

Michealangelo is reduced to the comic relief of the proceedings.  While he did take a job as Cowabunga Carl to appease Donatello, it’s obvious Mikey is more at home goofing off and cracking jokes.  Sadly, none of Mikey’s jokes are any good in this movie, and in some cases, just make Mikey seem like an idiot.

It’s worth noting that despite the star studded cast, the turtles themselves were portrayed by experienced voice actors.  The turtles’ co-creator Peter Laird had to fight to have the turtles voiced by voice actors and not celebrity talent, and that likely contritubutes to the stregth of the turtles’ plot.  Nolan North, who portrays Raphael, dominates the entire movie.  North would go on to provide voices for the Kraang and a variety of other characters for the 2012 cartoon as well.  James Arnold Taylor also does a great job as the voice of Leonardo.  Mitchell Whitfeild and Mikey Kelley are good choices for Donatello and Michealangelo as well, despite not given much to work with. .

So, about that celebrity talent…

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The Art-style and  Cast

Since the movie is animated, the human characters are all portrayed with a stylized look, which is another point of contention for some fans.  The major problem is that our human characters all seem to share a very thin, wiry body with large eyes.  Max Winters and some of his generals are the exception, having a more burly physique.  There doesn’t appear to be much in-between in terms of body structures however.  They still animate well in action scenes, but aren’t particularly appealing during the slow start of the movie.

I mention the art style because it unfortunately hurts the audiences’ first impressions of these characters, so the voice talent already has ground to make up for.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans are both passable as April O’ Neil and Casey Jones, but don’t really sell the idea that they are a couple.  The two are rarely in the same scene or interact much anyway, so it’s not as though they have much opportunity.

The late Mako as Splinter was off-putting at first, namely due to Mako’s Splinter sounding incredibly different from Splinters of the past.  Splinter has plenty of scenes though, where he really feels genuine.  Splinter is easily head-and-shoulders above the rest of the celebrity voices, likely due to Mako’s previous voice-over work on the Avatar cartoon.

Ziyi Zhang as Karai was also distracting.  Unfortunately, I could not get over her portrayal like I did with Splinter, as I never felt any strength in the performance.  This was further impeded by the character never given any opportunities to show herself as anything other than a lackey.

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Max Winters is the biggest stain on this movie though.  The great Patrick Stewart is not very good in the Max Winters role, but that isn’t the primary issue with the character.  To be clear, my summary of the plot was very spoiler-heavy, because without knowing any of Max Winters’ motivations ahead of time he comes across as a generic villain — which he is for most of the movie.  Max Winters is written as a rich man with an unknowable evil plot most of the time.  Only as the climax draws upon us does Winters make any indication that he is vying for redemption. Throwing this revelation into the movie in the third act feels abrupt and unsatisfying.  The fact that so much of the movie was dedicated to this plot line hurts even more.

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Ranking – 2

Based on all the problems I have with TMNT, it seems like I would rank this much lower; however, I am of the opinion that a good movie existed in the middle of this mess somewhere.  The art-style is consistent, and the action scenes in this movie are far more vivid than other Turtles excursions.  Nevertheless, the strong story involving Leo and Raph’s strained relationship is the true selling point for this movie.  This plot thread, in fact, is far better realized than any of the plot threads in Secret of the Ooze or Turtles 3 combined.  I dare say it’s more compelling than the Leo and Raph relationship from the original movie.

Where it stumbles is not allowing the turtles’ relationship to be the central story-arc, and giving the turtles a new enemy with his own backstory and complications make the entire affair feel cluttered and uninspired.  This installment strove to be more than it’s predecessors, yet failed.  The original movie only beats TMNT out of the top slot because it works better as an overall story.

So, that means… yes, TMNT is also better than our latest installment, which we shall conclude with, next time!

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