Looking back at TMNT

Turtles fans had to wait over a decade for it. But TMNT, in spite of its problems, was worth the wait. Matt takes a look back...

After more than a decade away from the big screen, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned in 2007 for their fourth film, TMNT. This marked the first computer animated outing for the foursome, although that hadn’t always been the plan.

The fourth film was originally intended to be a live-action follow-on to part 3, titled The Next Mutation, which would have been released back in the 90s. Although little is known about that film, the scraps of information about it available online suggest a film very different from (and much worse than) this one.

TMNT begins with a brief introduction to let us know where we’re starting (probably a wise move, given the number of places they could have been carrying on from). With The Shredder defeated, the group has fallen apart. Leonardo is training in South America, Michelangelo is entertaining at children’s birthday parties and Donatello is working a telephone-based tech support job. Raphael sleeps all day, sneaking out at night to fight crime as his vigilante alter ego, The Nightwatcher, alongside Casey Jones (the two never settle their argument over which of them is the sidekick).

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April O’Neil, meanwhile, has been hired by millionaire businessman, Max Winters, to find a collection of statues of ancient warriors from around the world. While on her travels, she convinces Leonardo to return home. Just as well, too, as the warrior statues she’s been collecting start to come to life (seemingly in order to hunt down thirteen pesky monsters that they need to send through a portal to another dimension, which will be opening imminently), and it’s up to the Turtles to stop them from unleashing hell upon New York City.

Unfortunately, things don’t fall back into place quite how Leonardo had hoped. Finding his brothers, particularly Raphael, unwilling to follow his leadership after his extended absence, he struggles to maintain order. Things come to a head on a rainy rooftop, where Leo and Raph finally settle their differences in an almighty scrap.

Finally, the brothers are forced to band together, along with April, Casey, Splinter and an unexpected ally in the Foot Clan (as lead by The Shredder’s daughter, Karai), in order to battle Winters and his warrior statues.

TMNT is a film that I have a good deal of affection for, and so I’d like to get my problems with it out of the way first, so that I can move on to discussing the more positive elements.

Almost all of the problems with TMNT lie within its script. The starting point for the film seems an odd choice, loosely picking up from the more recent animated series (midway through season 4). Sure, this point is likely to be accessible for people who know the original films, but it seems odd to just jump in mid-story. While I can certainly understand the filmmakers being reluctant to retell the Ninja Turtles vs. The Shredder story for the umpteenth time, this feels rather noncommittal for what could have been the launch of a new series of films.

By not starting again or directly following on from the previous films, the effect is that you feel like you’re watching a sequel to a film that doesn’t exist.

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The biggest problem is that TMNT lacks a strong villain. Max Winters doesn’t have a lot of screen time, and without wishing to stray into spoiler territory, facilitating the bluff over his intentions means the character never carries much in the way of menace. The living warrior statues feature about as much character as you would expect a statue might. This leaves a big hole in the film and, given that they had some great villains they could have taken from the vast source material, it’s a very avoidable problem. 

I would guess that the guys behind TMNT were aware of this issue, which may be what lead to the awkward inclusion of Karai and the Foot Clan. While I was certainly pleased to see the Foot Clan present, they could have done with a more central role in the story. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the character of Karai, either, but she feels like a consolation prize when compared to The Shredder, who really is missed in this film.

Of course, just because a script has weaknesses doesn’t mean it doesn’t have strengths. In fact, if the villains in the film are a bit thin, then the opposite is true of the main characters in TMNT. The film is driven by Raphael, who’s given his strongest and fullest arc of any of the films. Arguably the most interesting character of the four Turtles, making him the centre point of the story works very well and facilitates the most exciting plotline.

The plotline I’m referring to is The Nightwatcher story. If there’s something more cowabunga than a bad tempered Ninja Turtle putting on an armoured disguise, taking to the streets of New York on a motorcycle and beating the living daylights out of violent criminals, then I’m yet to encounter it.

Frustrated with his brothers for allowing criminals a free reign over the streets, Raphael takes matters into his own hands and sees to stopping crime in his own, very ‘hands on’ way.

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The look of the costume is great and the action scenes involving the character are a real pleasure to watch. It also sees him paired off with fellow masked madman, Casey Jones, who’s a loyal and understanding ally for a character who finds himself increasingly isolated from his family.

The script also does a good job of offering us some interesting relationships between characters. Casey Jones and April O’Neil, now living together as a couple, are given problems to overcome in their relationship, which are dealt with in an impressively subtle and restrained way. Similarly, Splinter’s relationships with both Leonardo and Raphael are given some depth, which is welcome in a film that’s so action heavy.

Michelangelo and Donatello both take supporting roles in TMNT. Donatello busts out the gadgets as is required. Mikey offers up comic relief as needed, armed with some of his most amusing quips yet.

The real strength of TMNT is its animation, which is excellent. We’re not talking Pixar level here, and the film does wobble slightly with the human characters and a flashback sequence that looks like Zack Snyder’s been at it with his felt-tip pens, but for the most part, it’s impressive stuff. The backgrounds in New York look good and the earlier scenes in the jungle feature impressive, detailed scenery.

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The biggest advantage of using CG for the film is that the limitations of using live-action Ninja Turtles are all removed. The characters have never looked better. They’re the right size, for a start, but everything about their look in TMNT absolutely works. On top of that, they’re able to move more convincingly. As a result, the fight scenes are pretty great.

Splinter, it should be noted, also looks terrific. The Yoda-like rat is convincing, whether frail and vulnerable, or when kicking ass in the final battle.

The best looking part of the film, and the highlight from a story point of view as well, is the fight between Raphael and Leonardo. In TMNT, Leonardo falls the wrong side of annoyingly self-righteous, and so it’s easy to understand why his conflict with hot-headed Raphael might finally boil over. The end result does not disappoint. This scene alone is enough of a  reason to recommend the film, even without all of the other excellent things it has going on.

Despite the faults I found with TMNT, I think the film really works. It manages to strike the right tone between being too light for the subject matter and too dark for younger viewers to enjoy. The voice cast all do a great job, the film looks terrific and, at a lean eighty-five minutes, it never outstays its welcome.

The film was produced on a fairly modest budget and brought back a pretty decent return at the box office, with International takings falling just shy of $100m. For whatever reason, a sequel never materialised, which is a real shame. With the look and feel established in this film, a follow on with a stronger villain (as is teased at the end of this one) would have been an exciting prospect.

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As it stands, TMNT is a film well worthy of the source material and if you’re a fan of the series who’s yet to see it, I’d suggest you check it out.