Embarrassing confession time. This writer was one of those kids who latched onto the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze back in the early Nineties. Yes, I watched the cartoon series, read the comics (the bright and breezy Archie Comics version, not the po-faced Eastman/Laird original), bought the toys and the breakfast cereal. No, I’m not proud of it. After three woeful live-action movies, a hideous novelty rap number, and a brain-meltingly awful appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, everyone suddenly saw the ninja-turtles for the pizza guzzling, couch potatoes they were. We moved on to worthier martial arts heroes like Jackie Chan or Dragonball’s Son Goku. Now, nearly two decades on from their turtle power heyday, the nunchaku-twirling terrapins return in a state of the art, computer animated feature.
After a brief recap of the turtles’ origin, the opening sequence recalls The Lord of the Rings (2001), with Laurence Fishburne providing portentous narration in his moody, Neo voice. It looks like writer-director Kevin Munroe has drawn from two popular film franchises to get the turtles back “down with the kids”, although both are nearly a decade old. 3000 years ago, warrior-king Yaolt opens a mystic portal called the Stars of Kikan, which grants him immortality, but turns his four generals into stone and unleashes thirteen terrible monsters upon the world. In the present day, intrepid April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) searches for chief ninja-turtle, Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) who is honing his skills battling guerrillas in the Central American jungle.
Back in New York, his turtle brothers have gone to seed. Tech wizard Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is stuck running an I.T. helpline, surly Raphael (Nolan North) moonlights as an armoured vigilante called the Nightwatcher, and in a semi-poignant nod to their clownish past, pizza lovin’ party dude Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) is now a pathetic, children’s entertainer. Leonardo’s return pleases rat sensei Splinter (everyone’s favourite rent-an-ethnic, Mako - is there a martial arts movie he isn’t in?), but irks resentful Raphael, who is no longer the wisecracking comedy turtle from the cartoon show. Now, he’s the tedious, Wolverine wannabe from the original comics. Oh joy… With monsters on the loose, and old enemies the Foot Clan on the prowl, led by lady ninja Karai (Ziyi Zhang), the turtles must patch up their differences and figure out why billionaire Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) is out to realign the Stars of Kikan.
Saturday morning cartoons have come a long way since the toy-selling doldrums of the eighties and the self-loathing, Gen-X toons of the early nineties. Nowadays, many strike a happy balance between childish fun and more sophisticated storylines, the same balance that Kevin Munroe strives for here and mostly succeeds. This boasts a wittier script (listen for the captive mugger who whines: “I should have stayed in law school”), and more involving action than the live-action movies, with a story that contrasts two clans of feuding brothers and throws a welcome twist with its villain. The would-be hip and cutesy posturing of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is largely avoided, but like that tedious movie this dwells heavily on themes of family and sticking together. This results in too much whiny teenage angst and domestic squabbles sapping momentum between exciting fight scenes.
A Hong Kong-American co-production, the animators render an expansive CG metropolis for the turtles to cavort through, with pleasingly angular human characters that resemble Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), and memorable bug-eyed monsters like Ray Harryhausen on acid. As voiced by the ever-feisty Sarah Michelle Gellar, April O’Neil is no longer the drippy damsel in distress, but an appealing action girl. Sadly, the script doesn’t know what to do with her. It also criminally wastes the great Ziyi Zhang, while even amiable Chris Evans can’t prevent the turtles’ bat-wielding sidekick Casey Jones from seeming pointless, or interest us in his troubled romance with April.
So not quite the triumphant comeback then, but liable to leave fans less embarrassed about their misspent youth. In the meantime all eyes are on Kevin Munroe as he revives a far worthier childhood favourite: anime classic Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972), a.k.a. Battle of the Planets.