Monday, 19 March 2007

TMNT (2007)

What the shell are you looking at?

Like the recent Batman and Superman movies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon have undergone a bit of a makeover in recent years. When the original creators of the TMNT comic books managed to gain control of the cartoon franchise in 2003 (Mirage Studios now holds 1/3 of the rights to the series, as opposed to none in 1987), the entire storyline was rebooted to bring the animated cartoons in line with the darker and edgier comic series. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the blundering villain Krang, along with mutant sidekick Bebop and Rocksteady, were written out; they never even existed, while Shredder is a much crueller and capable villain than the original cartoon version. Oh, he's dead now, though. That wasn't as much surprising as how the turtles have changed - they still wear those multicoloured bandannas, but the sibling rivalry, friction, and faux swear words exchanged between the foursome (note the tagline of this movie is "Raising shell in 2007!") is a new element that makes TMNT more worthy of its "teenage" moniker.

So the expectations are high when you know that there will be a TNMT movie this year. Will the CG animation look better and meaner than a live action movie with 4 actors in turtle suits, and will it be a kiddified version of the cartoon series, like the previous 3 TMNT movies? And which cartoon series? Will the movie follow the revamped storyline and adopt its mature style, or will the darker-themed revamp be rolled back in favour of the kid-friendlier original series? Any way you look at it, a TMNT movie will have to negotiate through a minefield just to please various crowds that have grown up with radically different incarnations of the turtles: the fans of the comic book, the original cartoon, and the revamped cartoon; the older fans and the target kid audience that this movie wants to sell merchandising to; the original creators from Image Comics who are now co-producing this movie, and the creators of the original kiddified TMNT movies who are still co-producing this movie. Who will have the final say in the kind of movie TMNT will be - and will the final product be coherent enough?

Here's the good news: TMNT (2007) will adopt much of the darker tone and edgier storytelling from the new series. This comes with other good things, like the CGI look of the movie and the edgier character art for the turtles. However, all this comes at a price - TMNT is indeed a consensus product, meaning that in trying to please everyone, the movie becomes a victim of its contradictions and political juggling.

Backgrounds, architecture and turtle designs cue towards the meaner and edgier sensibility in the movie's story, but for some reason, it is difficult to reconcile this with the cutsey Sims-style character designs for all the human characters - who look like they just jumped out from a cartoon from 2000 at the very latest. The movie has Max Winters, a new supervillain who is cursed with immortality and voiced with Shakespearian angst and ambition by Patrick Stewart, but looks like a Mr Incredible with black hair, cosplaying at a Warhammer 40,000 convention. Shredder's successor Karai (voiced with bad stock Chinese-accented English by Zhang Ziyi, the sort of accent that even Wok With Yan eventually disavowed!) looks like Jade, the little girl from Jackie Chan Adventures - why Karai had to be chibified when her character design already exists in the 2003 cartoon series is a total mystery. Getting the unneccesary facelift is April O'Neil, who again bears no resemblance to either of her cartoon incarnations, but whose character design is evidently recycled from the Akina character from Zentrix, another CGI animation series that Imagi Studios, the HK-based co-producers (and no relation to Image Studios) used to produce before 2000. You have to understand that it is very difficult to get into the dark atmosphere of the story if more than half of the characters scream I'M CUTE at your eyeballs while pretending to be lethal, monster-kicking ninjas.

Nevertheless, when TMNT works, it does so with style. The scene transitions are breathtaking and show a cinematic imagination influenced by classic black and white film, while the outdoors set designs evoke a feel of nighttime New York as Gotham City. The turtles look ultra-realistic thanks to the CGI, as do the monsters that Winters unleashes. Perhaps the high point of the movie is its action sequences, especially the well-choreographed battle between Leonardo and Raphael, a culmination from from the intense rivalry and animosity between the turtles that the movie patiently builds.

As a consensus product, this movie will not please everyone, but at least everyone will find at least one thing that they'll like, whether it's the darker and meaner storytelling, the turtle design, or the Saturday morning CGI cartoon style. Meanwhile, though, hopes of a more coherent TMNT movie will have to be postponed till the next installment.

First published at incinemas on 23 March 2007

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