Conceived for fans but dumbed down for tots, "TMNT" takes one of the most curious comicbook phenoms of the '80s and translates it to yet another platform: a PG-rated all-CG toon. Animation quality is leagues beyond the hand-drawn style that launched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to popularity, and the storyline is no shallower than "300" (even if ripped turtle shells have nothing on Spartan abs), but pic lacks the personality that made these animated action figures so appealing 20 years ago.
Conceived for fans but dumbed down for tots, “TMNT” takes one of the most curious comicbook phenoms of the ’80s and translates it to yet another platform: a PG-rated all-CG toon. Animation quality is leagues beyond the hand-drawn style that launched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to popularity, and the storyline is no shallower than “300” (even if ripped turtle shells have nothing on Spartan abs), but pic lacks the personality that made these animated action figures so appealing 20 years ago. Kids will devour this like anchovy-free pizza, while nostalgia-driven kidult attendance should spell sequels for this “cash cowabunga.”
Born as an irreverent one-off underground comic, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s 1984 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” creation was quickly co-opted for toys, Saturday morning cartoons, live-action features and videogames galore. Each incarnation offered a slightly different riff on the basic premise — four New York sewer-dwelling turtle-men, christened after Renaissance painters, who cracked jokes and fought crime under the guidance of a rat named Splinter — while taking the property farther away from its roots as a spoof of early ’80s comicbook obsessions with mutant and ninja subjects.
“TMNT” is nothing if not a blatant attempt to sell more toys and tie-ins, with precious little attention paid to pleasing the fans for whom the pic was allegedly greenlit. And yet, rather than repeating the gang’s origin story for the uninitiated, the film picks up where the other movies left off. Time has passed, and Shredder, the gang’s longtime nemesis, is still out of commission, and his minions (including one voiced by Ziyi Zhang) have become ninjas for hire. Narrator Laurence Fishburne warns that “a greater evil is poised to destroy” humankind, but in-fighting among the turtles seems a greater threat than the 13 monsters mentioned in the movie’s underwhelming intro (collect them all, kids!).
“TMNT” would have done well to borrow a page from the James Bond/Indiana Jones playbook: It desperately needs an adrenaline-fueled pre-credits sequence to jumpstart the action. Instead, pic offers a long 3,000-year-old prologue followed by a bizarre South American jungle encounter in which April O’Neil (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) reunites with Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor), leader of the gang.
Only, April isn’t exactly herself, having ditched TV news reporting in favor of archaeological field work. Meanwhile, the turtles — Leonardo, Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) and Raphael (Nolan North) — have gone soft in their old age, with all but Raphael abandoning their vigilante ways.
Before “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” before “Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!” the franchise provided kids an adult-confounding tongue-twister to embrace. But the “TMNT” acronym spoils the fun — and besides, the “T” no longer applies: These teenage mutants are now twentysomething slackers.
Their surfer-talk has gone from trend-setting to retro, and writer-director Kevin Munroe forgot to write them any good dialogue. Ditching the cheeky, self-aware wink that helped to excuse the concept’s inherent corniness, the movie attempts to look polished and “cool,” but the been-there animation can’t compete with the then-cutting-edge puppetry of the 1990 live-action movie.
Whereas most toons take years to produce, Hong Kong-animated “TMNT” was rushed through the pipeline in just 28 months. The turtles themselves look great, with perceptible design differences among them beyond their face-mask colors and weapon selections, and the nocturnal Gotham environments impress. But the human characters — namely April, sidekick Casey Jones (Chris Evans) and villain Maximillian Winters (Patrick Stewart) — disappoint, their mouths matching their dialogue with all the accuracy of a sock puppet.
Considering the inevitable sequels (bolstered by none-too-subtle references to “further business” involving “familiar faces from your past”), it’s a shame that “TMNT” manages only two virtuoso scenes.
In the first, Michelangelo skateboards from street level through the sewers to the turtles’ secret lair in a single take, the camera looping and swirling along for the ride as no live-action shot possibly could. Later, Leonardo and Raphael have a rooftop face-off in the rain, revealing the full potential of how a “TMNT” fight might look (neither the original toon nor the movies’ clunky full-body costumes could support this level of action).
But the rest feels little more than obligatory, with Munroe’s script denying fans the satisfaction of a decent story or amusing interactions. Rather than waiting for a screenplay that warranted their bigscreen return, “TMNT” feels like an attempt to exploit the phenomenon further.