Of all things, the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has emerged as one of the most definitively American of comic book heroes. The blend of surfer dude personas, a constant diet of pizza, a passion for martial arts and the spectacle of giant, talking turtles plays simultaneously like a spoof and celebration of American pop culture. The Turtles, with their vigilante violence but tight brotherly values, seem like a hybrid out of a Quentin Tarantino fever dream. Truly, the charming oddity of the Turtles seems to have sprung from Brad Pitt’s “Floyd” character from “True Romance;” if Floyd had smoked one bowl, eaten one entire pizza too many in a single stoner session and began hallucinating, he undoubtedly would have envisioned our “heroes in a half shell.”
The 1990 arrival of Steve Barron’s live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” marked a gigantic independent success, as Barron’s relatively low budget but charming, exciting and well crafted feature become a surprise blockbuster. Clearly much of the budget went into the Ninja Turtle creature effects done by The Jim Henson Company. Although Barron’s movie has a few clunky moments, it’s a strong vehicle, one of the better early comic book movies and the title characters do evoke wonder. Yes, they are clearly actors in suits but those performers are doing amazing things (Back flips! Fight scenes! Pizza twirling!) in those cumbersome costumes and the facial expressions/lip movements are impressive. Opening in between Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was an example of a comic book movie that could be made without studio gloss, faithful to an eccentric premise and find an appreciative audience.
Barron’s movie has an authentic grunginess and eclecticism that defies the polish of modern day comic book films. The two sequels that followed, unfortunately, are strictly studio-branded works. There are enjoyable moments in “The Secret of the Ooze” and “Turtles in Time” but they feel too safe and manufactured. Many years later, Kevin Munroe’s all-CGI “TMNT’ arrived in theaters and winningly brought the characters back to life through all-CGI rendering.
The great introductory scenes have plucky reporter April O’Neill (nicely voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) searching for a missing Leonardo (the Ninja Turtle, not DiCaprio) in Central America. Once she finds him, she reveals that his brothers have fallen on hard times and require his presence to restore order. Amusingly, we learn that one of the Turtles makes a living performing as a Ninja Turtle for children’s birthday parties (a good steal of a gag right out of “Ghostbusters II”). Once we get to the villain, in a subplot that feels lifted from Russell Mulcahy’s “The Shadow,” “TMNT” hits and misses.
“TMNT” is too plot heavy and takes too long to get to the action. The actors give vocal performances that spark their characters to life. Despite how flimsy his role is Patrick Stewart gives his villain needed vocal heft.
To be really fanboy nitpicky, there’s far too little pizza consumption. While O’Neill and fan favorites Casey Jones are lively enough, as are Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, I never hated the villains as much as I should have. Stewart’s Max Winters is no match for Shredder, though I loved the work of the late, great Mako, a perfect choice for Master Splinter. Laurence Fishburne makes an ideal narrator and Chris Evans is a solid choice for Casey Jones (which now means Evans has played three iconic comic book characters to date).
Although the backgrounds and sets are rich with detail, the human faces are lackluster. However, the look of the Turtles is faithful to the source material and strong throughout. The introductory reveal of Leonardo is an especially strong, as it harkens back to the Eastman/Laird source material and is an iconic, goose bump inducing visual.
Once the action kicks into high gear and the funny one-liners come with regularity, “TMNT” works well enough. The Ninja Turtles have evolved cinematically and are as impressively rendered through animation as their rubber suited versions were in the 1990’s. Yet, it’s the storyline that doesn’t stick, as the plotting here is on par with anything in “Turtles in Time.”
Munroe’s film was a minor hit but never merited the sequel it deserved. The Michael Bay-produced live action spin-off series has left me unsatisfied (yes, even “Out of the Shadows”). To course-correct this franchise, I recommend a filmmaker look at the early and concluding scenes of Munroe’s film, where the Ninja Turtles are running across New York City rooftops. The energy, mounting excitement and fluidity of these moments are wonderful. Clearly, Munroe gets the appeal and potential of this franchise and, throughout “TMNT,” there are slices of inspiration to savor. Here’s hoping that, post-Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles, someone else will come around and recall what made these Heroes In A Half Shell so special.