Chris Evans as Casey Jones
Sarah Michelle Gellar as April O’Neil
Mako as Master Splinter
Kevin Smith as Diner Cook
Patrick Stewart as Max Winters
Laurence Fishburne as Narrator
Ziyi Zhang as Karai
Mitchell Whitfield as Donatello
James Arnold Taylor as Leonardo
Mikey Kelley as Michelangelo
Nolan North as Raphael
Kevin Michael Richardson as General Aquila
The original heyday for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is long gone and done, but the franchise has been undergoing a revival of sorts over the last five years thanks to a successful Saturday morning cartoon and related merchandise enough of one at any rate to justify a new Turtles film, the fourth to date, but the first in quite some time.
Rather than create a new film series from scratch, “TMNT” assumes it’s audience is well-versed in Turtles lore, particularly plot developments from the recent series (which recent, unseen, history seems to be based on, though this is never explicitly stated). This certainly makes sense as there’s a ready-made audience for the current Turtles iteration, though I can’t imagine it appealing to anyone else. It’s very much a movie made by a fan for (current) fans, which is a big part of its problems.
Some time after the defeat of the Turtles’ archenemy the Shredder (mentioned briefly in passing) the Turtles have begun to fall apart, theoretically due to a lack of purpose, which sort of makes sense and could be an interesting starting point for a story about the bonds of family which is what “TMNT” is more or less about. Unfortunately, first time writer/director Kevin Munroe generally chooses to vastly overplay his hand in order to hammer his point home.
He needs at least one of the Turtles gone in order to build his theme of broken family. It’s not a bad way to start, but rather than put any sort of thought into how to accomplish it he simply reaches into the bag of Turtles plot devices and pulls out Master Splinter (Mako, in his final performance), who has decided that the only way for Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) to become a better leader is to go off by himself and live as a hermit in South America. How this makes anyone a better leader I can’t imagine, but it certainly does lend itself to a stylish opening as Leonardo protects a village from local revolutionaries/banditos. It doesn’t make any sense at all, but at least it looks good. Munroe almost always chooses to sacrifice story and characterization for style.
Old friend April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tracks him down while in South America to find a statue for eccentric millionaire Max Winters (Patrick Stewart). At first refusing to return, Leonardo eventually and for reasons that are never explained and occur off camera (making room, I assume, for a really cool entrance wherein he hanglides off a landing plane into New York harbor) returns home to find the Turtles slowly decaying. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is working for a telephone IT company, Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) entertains kids birthday parties dressed up as himself, and Raphael (Nolan North) spends his nights single handedly policing New York dressed up like a metal version of himself (and yet somehow only Casey Jones (Chris Evans) is able to put two and two together on that).
Raphael blames Leonardo for leaving home, despite the fact that it is quite clearly stated he was ordered to go. Character motivation isn’t in great supply character’s are expected to feel a certain way because the plot demands it, so they do, just don’t think too hard about why.
Their rivalry culminates in a breathtakingly well animated fight scene in the rain that is completely devoid of any sort of emotional resonance. In fact, almost every good scene in “TMNT” is an action sequence Raphael fighting an absurdly strong creature in a small kitchen and the entire group battling their way through an army of Foot guarding Winter’s fortress are the other two standouts and a lot of time and thought has been put into them. So much in fact that none seems to have been spared for the story or any of the other characters.
Donatello and Michelangelo might as well not be in the film for all they bring to it, they only really seem to be around because there are traditionally four turtles, and no one else fares much better. Splinter is reduced to an expositional plot device who mostly speaks in seemingly wise aphorisms that don’t actually mean anything. Casey and April, who have moved in together at some point, are having some kind of vaguely defined relationship crisis that is lightly touched on then forgotten until it is conveniently wrapped up right before the final battle.
Similar abortive attempts are made to create some sort of relationship between Winters and April and to define Karai (Ziyi Zhang), but nothing is ever made of them. It feels like there is a longer, better Turtles movie somewhere that was cut down in order to keep all the action sequences in, but keep the running time down to 90 minutes. The result is a muddled mess of characters and plot that looks nice, but doesn’t make any sense.
None of these criticisms will mean anything at all to the audience the filmmakers are trying to reach, so it’s not terribly surprising how much more effort is put into the look than the story. It’s skillfully designed and animated. But if they weren’t going to be able to make a workable story out of it they shouldn’t have tried at all. Their attempts just make their failure more obvious.
Young fans of the current show will probably get a kick out of it, but I can’t imagine it appealing to anyone else.