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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - TMNT

Time again for Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the many DVDs in my collection.  This time around, I attempt to get all serious and analytical, but the film I choose to do it with is TMNT, aka the computer animated Ninja Turtles movie.  This entry's originally dated June 8, 2012.

Like a lot of geeks, I feel that superheroes and animation are a genre and a medium made for each other. As was pointed out to me a long time ago, you don't need elaborate special effects to portray superheroics in animation...you just draw it. So with superheroes reigning supreme at the box office right now, why don't we get any superhero animated epics? For a while there, it looked like we were going to get an animation studio dedicated to doing just that...a little Hong Kong based animation house called Imagi Animation Studios.

When Imagi burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, they got a lot of geek hearts aflutter when they started snatching up the rights to many well-known superhero properties. From Japan, they got the movie rights to Gatchaman and Astro Boy. And then, from North America, they got one of the best known superhero franchises that doesn't belong to Marvel or DC. Those icons of the late-80s/early-90s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I was one of those geeks whose heart was a flutter when that was announced. What can I say? A new Ninja Turtles movie got my childhood nostalgia juices flowing just as much as Transformers or .G.I. Joe. I was completely mad for this film when it came out. I was devouring everything I could read about it. I read the tale of writer/director Kevin Munroe, and how he got this movie off the ground. Back in the '00s, Peter Laird, the co-creator of Ninja Turtles, was the grand poobah of the TMNT franchise. He got full control of the property in 1999 or so, and everything Ninja Turtle connected from 1999 - 2009 has Laird's hand in it. When Munroe went to pitch the movie to Laird, he brought along his vintage copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, thinking that if the pitch went south, he'd at least be able to get Laird to autograph it. At the end of the meeting, Munroe was unsure of how it went. He took a look at his vintage comic, and saw that Laird didn't just autograph it...Laird sketched Leonardo and wrote "You got the movie. Don't fuck it up."

I also remember reading the dispute that Munroe had with the studio. Coming from an animation background, Munroe wanted to do away with the custom of getting big celebrities to do voices, and instead recruiting nothing but the best voice actors in animation today. The studio, however, wanted the celebrities, because hey, they bring promotional value. So, they eventually reached a compromise. The Turtles themselves could be voiced by voice actors, and the supporting cast could be celebrities. So some of the voice actors Munroe recruited include James Arnold Taylor (the current official voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in all Star Wars cartoons and video games) as Leonardo and Nolan North (Superboy on Young Justice) as Raphael. For the celebrities, we got Buffy (Sara Michelle Gellar) as April O'Neil, Captain America (Chris Evans) as Casey Jones, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) as Winters (the villain of the piece), the chick from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Zhang Ziyi) as Karai, and cult film maker Kevin Smith doing a cameo as a diner owner.

Fun side note: being a Kevin Smith fanboy, I can tell you that Smith does have a story to tell about doing a voice in the film that he tells in his live shows. When he revealed to his friend Jason Mewes (the Jay of Jay and Silent Bob) that he'd be doing a voice, Mewes totally geeked out. Mewes got the filmmakers on the phone and started begging to do a voice in the film. Sadly, they had no room for him, as the film was fully cast. "It's the only time I've ever seen him actively pursue a role," says Smith.

I was there on opening weekend in 2007. Words cannot describe how much I was jazzed for this film. I began to reflect on my experiences with the Ninja Turtles franchise. I got my first taste of the Turtles when I was about 11 years old. I was visiting my grandparents, who had this magical thing called "cable," and I was watching this new cable channel of nothing but kids shows called YTV. (You may remember that Ninja Turtles was a cornerstone of the YTV line-up in its early days.) I managed to catch an episode of this here Ninja Turtles cartoon, because it just debuted, and my cousin was nuts for it. And I was...enraptured. Next to G.I. Joe and Transformers, it was just so...different. the following year, my parents got cable TV, and with it YTV, and they showed Ninja Turtles 5 times week at 5PM. It became part of my junior high TV habits. And then the live-action movie came along in 1990...aww, man. I'll be doing that film sooner rather than later.

The film, though, was somewhat unexpected for its plot. Firstly, no Shredder. I think we can thank Batman Begins for that...the new trend thanks to Christopher Nolan's Batman films seems to have become "save the well-known arch-enemy for the sequel." The film takes place after the Turtles have defeated the Shredder and most of their rogues gallery. With no enemies now, the Turtles seem to have become...directionless. Donatello has used his tech skills to run a tech support service. Michelangelo does kids birthday parties. Leonardo isn't even in New York, having been sent away by Splinter to further his training. We catch up with Leo in the jungles of Central America, protecting a small village from bandits. In the dialogue, we learn he's been away for at least a year. And Raphael, still looking for enemies to fight, prowls the alleyways of New York City as a vigilante known as the Nightwatcher.

April O'Neil has become a Lara Croft-type treasure hunter, and the movie opens with her finding a long lost statue for a billionaire industrialist named Winters. Winters, it seems, has some kind of villainous plot, and he requires the four statues of four ancient generals. And then, he hires the Foot Clan to round up 13 monsters that are starting to converge on New York City. For you see, Winters is actually an immortal warrior, and when 9 starts align, it will open up a portal to another world. When he first did that 3000 years ago, it granted him immortality, turned his friends and trusted generals to stone, and unleashed the monsters on the world. Now, he seeks to do it all over again. But for what purpose?

And in the midst of this, Leonardo finally comes him. Really, this is the story of Leonardo and Raphael. As we know, Raphael has always been the angry turtles, and when Leonardo returns home, a lot of his anger is directed at Leo. He's mad at Leo for going off and abandoning their mission to protest the city...he's resentful that Leo automatically resumes his leadership role and starts barking orders...and he's jealous because he sees as Leo as the returning prodigal son. There's a lot of tension between the two, and it eventually reaches a head and they slug it out on a rainy rooftop. I did kind of chuckle at that. It's such a "guy cliche" that there eventually reaches a point where they only thing they can do to settle their differences is to rip off their shirts and punch it out.

Eventually, though, the Foot Clan going around rounding up monsters catches the attention of our heroes, and they soon get involved. Will the Turtles be able to stop Winters' plot?

There's some beautifully animated sequences in this. I love the sequence of of Michaelangelo skateboarding through the sewers. I love the sequence of Leonardo hang-gliding home. And there's a great epic fight at the end as they take on the Foot army.

Oh! This would be a good time to mention the totally awesome teaser trailer, that had animation not seen in the film.

And the characterizations are great, too. That's why Christopher Nolan hit on such a great idea to save the arch-enemy for the sequel. That way, in the first film, you truly can focus on the heroes and their origins and their inner struggles. These are the Ninja Turtles we all know and love.  It was 100% faithful to the franchise.

It looked like Imagi was going to do it.  A computer animation studio dedicated to big-budget superhero epics.  But where did it all go wrong?  Was is Imagi now bankrupt and not making films?  How did they lose their way?

We'll figure that out next time, when we do Astro Boy.

Oh, and just for historical accuracy, he's a link to one of the original blog entries I did geeking out about the film.

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