TMNT Review: When a Bad Movie is So Good

tmnt-posterIf I bothered to explain the plot, you’d think the writers of LOST were behind this.

If you tried to make sense of the 13 mythological monsters that have been (presumably) running amok for the last millennium and suddenly show up in New York City all in one night, then you’d have an easier time with quantum physics.

If you watched the previous live-action films, then aside from a cameo of the scepter (TMNT 3) at the end, you won’t find canonical callbacks.

If you’ve never read the comics or seen the 2003 animated series, you’ll be baffled by the addition of Shredder’s daughter, Karai.

If you don’t know who the Shredder is, the film won’t tell you.

If Donatello, the adventitious albeit uniquely humorous turtle genius won your heart in the previous live-action films, you will be sorely disappointed to see he’s become nothing more than a stereotypical science-wiz.

If Michelangelo was your role model for his array of catchphrases, his diet of pizza, and a simple-mindedness that was outmatched by years of Ninjutsu, then you’ll be disappointed by his lack of screen time and poor line delivery.

If you spend your time wondering why news reporter April O’Neil is now an archeologist on-par with Indiana Jones, you’ll scratch your head bald.

Despite that, I love this film.

First and foremost, praise be to the art directors, fight choreographers, and Klaus Badelt. Whether it’s a fight sequence, Mikey on a skateboard, or the turtles jumping over roof tops, this movie is an animation bonanza. There are long shots that stretch over panoramic battle fields – each interaction meticulously choreographed. In so many words Writer/Director Kevin Munroe states in the commentary, “They asked how many extras we wanted in the shot. I said, ‘How many can you do?’ They said, ‘a thousand.’ So I said, ‘Let’s make it a thousand.’”

The visual direction is concise, imaginative, and sets the bar for CGI-action films.

In addition, the overall design is more cartoonish than those animated films that strive for gritty realism and it only works to TMNT‘s benefit. It feels like a breathing comic book with the color palettes and cityscapes. In general, the art direction feels fresh and it’s an original take on New York City and these iconic characters.

In short, this is a film that was crafted with heart.

But truthfully, you could strip that praise away and I would still love this picture because of the relationship between Raphael and Leonardo. That’s what the movie is about. There are stone, immortal warriors and mythological monsters, but they only serve as a catalyst to tell these two brothers’ story.

Every incarnation of these heroes (the live-action movies; the television series; the comic books; the video games) hinges on these two’s dynamic. Yes, Mikey is probably the most beloved, but Raph and Leo’s love/hate, sibling rivalry and stark contrast in mindset — as well as fighting prowess — have always been the heart of the TMNT.

While it’s never explicitly stated, we’re given the impression that the team crumbled because Leo and Raph had an irreparable divide. While Don and Mikey are there, Raph and Leo are the protagonists.

Leo finds himself training (months overdue) in South America. He feels ashamed of his failures and believes his master has banished him.

In Leo’s absence, Raph finds himself more misunderstood than ever. His other brothers don’t bother with him whereas Leo genuinely tried to help and understand. Raph also sees Leo’s mission to South America as Splinter’s favoritism and resents him for it; he becomes entirely closed off and wishes he could escape to South America, rather than feel the dejection in his own home. As a result, he puts on a cowl and fights crime as the NightWatcher, trying to redeem himself.

Raphael is a ninja, he’s already capable of hiding in the shadows, so the disguise is to hide his own shame.

When Leo returns, Raph shows signs of relief, not knowing how to express real elation as he’s been angry and disheartened for so long. Of course, when Leo tries to resume his role as leader, Raph is resentful — not because Leo doesn’t deserve to be the leader, but because Leo acts as if nothing has changed. This resentment manifests into sheer rage when coupled with the fact that Raph feels his father (Splinter) still gives Leo special treatment.

All of this comes to a head in the epic Raph and Leo fight that fans have been waiting for since 1984. Best of all, unlike many (iconic character) vs. (iconic character) battles, this one has a definitive winner.

Leo fought to teach, but Raph fought to kill.

I could rave about this four-minute clip for hours, in the same way that an English graduate could write a ten-page paper on a three-line poem. But if you’ve watched the clip, then you get it. Even the subtlety of Raphael’s eyes dilating just as his anger subsides is visually unprecedented.

(It’s one of the reasons, I prefer just about any other animation studio to Pixar. Pixar skates by on the “Disney” eyes, so subtlety is lost.)

Following this fight, Raphael has a tear-jerking scene with Splinter where he finally confronts his father about his issue with Leonardo. It’s a scene that doesn’t have much dialogue, but it’s because Munroe masterfully tells the story with visuals. In fact, when Splinter learns that Leonardo has been kidnapped, you see his breathing increase and his brow furrow… but he inhales a few times and regains his zen-like calm to think rationally.

This movie may have its flaws — in fact, it has quite a few of them — but it was created by someone (Kevin Munroe) who genuinely put his heart and soul into it.

In fact, so much of the Leonardo and Raphael relationship makes up for the flaws I mentioned earlier.

If anything, this movie is told from Raph’s perspective, so Don and Mikey’s decreased screen time is only used to illustrate that his brothers have distanced themselves from him. (YAMNT might’ve been a more suitable title; “Young Adult Mutant … et al”).

In addition, April O’Neil and Casey Jones parallel Leo and Raph. April is the leader — traveling abroad — and giving Casey orders. The difference is Casey is more interested in being the vigilante than starting/having a family; Raph, in this scenario, is the opposite. Raphael wants the family together again; if anything, the vigilante side is wearing him down.

Then there’s the stone warriors of Patrick Stewart who became family through fighting, but the warriors’ quest for power decimates their familial ties. Stewart — however uninteresting — is only there to display a man who has lived for centuries (many different lives), but has never valued anything as much as his family.
Plus, he’s clearly the leader and his angry right-hand man revolts; so it’s kinda a Leo/Raph parallel but far less developed.

Then there’s the 13 monsters because… I don’t know. There’s really no point to those monsters. I mean they capture all 13 in maybe 40 seconds of screen time.

But the point is, this is a passionately made film that functions well as a sequel to the live-action franchise and as a standalone title.

***

Okay, okay, I know, “How can it be a passionate film if the plot is such crap?” The villains were an afterthought and it’s something I blame wholeheartedly on the studio, not the writer/director.

My brother, as well as the renowned reviewers of RedLetterMedia, have been saying for years that they want to see a Batman movie where there is no “villain,” but rather a movie of Batman cleaning up crime in Gotham. I mean, you can have like a mob boss or something, but no super villains, just crime. But it’s a hard sell. If someone wants to make a movie about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then studios say, “Okay, versus who?” Had Munroe said, “No one… just a story about the turtles,” then he wouldn’t have gotten the green light.

Nowadays though, people demand the villain! The villain is usually half the draw. I’m actually really pleased with the fact that Kevin Munroe opted out of the Shredder route — that’s bold for a soft reboot/sequel to a live-action franchise that was over 15 years old. More bold than Superman Returns (2006), I’ll tell ya that much.

Plus, I’m pretty sure Patrick Stewart was wholly original. Having read interviews with Munroe, that’s not because he didn’t look to the source material and wealth of characters, but likely he created Stewart because he didn’t want to give an iconic villain undue screen time. He wanted to make a movie about the turtles — not the turtles vs. a villain.

The commentary talks about how the introduction that features the stone warriors’ origin was originally going to appear later in the film, but Munroe thought people would be too confused as to who Stewart’s character was. Frankly, he kinda says this as though that whole sequence was an afterthought.

Also, let’s take a minute here and talk about the fact that even with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Laurence Fishbourne, Chris Evans, and Patrick Stewart’s salaries, this movie — this ANIMATED movie — was made on a budget of $34 million!

Now Toy Story was made for $30 million, but that was also in 1995. Ratatouille, that same year (2007), had a budget of $150 million. Hell, even a year later, Kung Fu Panda (2008), was an original property — not even banking off the turtles’ longstanding fan-base — that was made for $130 million.

I’m not trying to discredit any of the aforementioned films since I love all of them (everyone knows, those are the only two Pixar films I adore), I’m just trying to give some perspective!

I mean, yeah, there are some CGI-animated films made for cheap like Alpha & Omega or Hoodwinked! but those look cheap.

Anyway, I digress. TMNT (2007) was a sweet-ass movie.

Based on the comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

TMNT (2007)
Written/Directed by: Kevin Munroe
Imagi Animation Studios
PG
87 minutes

For more reviews, check out Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

6 comments

  1. J.K. Post authorReply

    I’m glad you like the Leo/Raph dynamic. Be wary when reading Sharking Bad because we’ve got some plot stuff that might smother your memories with a chloroform soaked pillow.

  2. Pierce Nahigyan Post authorReply

    Can’t agree enough, especially about the 13 monsters. The plot of this movie is absurd (though honestly it’s on par with the absurdity of the original comics) and the whole stone warriors/monsters thing just seemed like an immediately bad idea. But as you point out, despite the several wrong turns the movie makes, it was made by people who at the very least got that integral Leo-Raph dynamic.

    What’s interesting to me is that the closer the Bay-produced TMNT movie gets, the more I’m realizing (and as many have already pointed out online) the original idea is about as wacky as it gets. It doesn’t have “artistic integrity” that can be violated per se, just used in a fun way or a poor way. There have been several comic series, several television series, and several films – all of varying quality – but at the end of the day we’re still talking about “teenage” “mutant” “ninja” “turtles.” There’s literally nowhere crazier to go with that premise than it’s title.

    But weird as this series is, it’s nice when the creatives take the characters in a direction that is respectful to whatever kind of “integrity” the series actually has.

    • Derek Hobson Post authorReply

      Totally!

      Yeah, whenever someone tells me that stone warriors is bizarre, I look back on the 80s cartoon’s Krang, or — better yet — the comic book’s interdimensional cowhead, Cowlick.

      To be honest, I don’t think Bay’s TMNT is a bad thing. I may be in the minority, but I like seeing people reimagine iconic characters — like you should check out the new Sonic the Hedgehog (named Sonic Boom).

      But similar to Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s not that I think the newer titles are bad, they’re just not my cup of tea. Likewise, Bay’s turtles, it’s great that they’re still alive and thriving and to be honest the designs are pretty nifty (differentiates them more), but I have no desire to see it.

      • Pierce Nahigyan Post authorReply

        Same. I’ve passed that point where it’s a ‘sacrilege’ to adapt these characters again. Mostly I’m just confused why studios are trying to sell GI Joe, Transformers and TMNT to a new generation of kids. I get that they’re ‘reimagining’ them, but today’s kids never grew up with this stuff and will have no interest in it beyond a single movie ticket. I suppose that’s the point.

  3. Derek Hobson Post authorReply

    Actually, I just talked to Paul about this and I might write it up in an article, but I think Batman killed solo superheroes, because The Dark Knight Rises did rival The Avengers in box office numbers. So you have studios aiming for Batman moreso than Marvel because they own one or two character/franchises.

    Batman’s solo outings are complex and deep and his villains are manifestations of alternate ideologies… Unlike the turtles or Spider-Man or Man of Steel. Spider-Man is perhaps the antithesis of Batman since he is a goofball and has no archnemesis or opposite ideology, yet the new movies are riding that line or traditional Spidey alongside dark Batman and it doesn’t work.

    Likewise, although the turtles has “dark” origins, the film is humanizing Shredder to provide an antithesis. I don’t think they’re trying to set him up as a villain, the trailer makes him sound like he dons the Shredder costume to “make heroes,” he’s willing to be a villain to “make heroes.”

    In short, I think you’re right and I think it’s all Batman’s fault.

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