As comic book adaptations continue to rule the box office, someone came up with the bright idea that another round with the worthy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise would spur a new generation of fans. Only this time around, the Turtles come sans rubber suits and Vanilla Ice cameos, even sans their super-cool name. Even back in 1990, I thought that the Turtles’ premise outlandish, the plots overblown, and the heroes obnoxious. Not much of that has changed, except that it’s clearer to me now where the Turtles are coming from: they’re boys being boys.
The new and improved Turtles are CGIed, allowing for more nuanced storytelling by way of a strong visual style and composition-based shots that come close to capturing the noir-based artistry of the original 1984 comic book developed by Kevin Eastman. Better still, the CGI allows the Turtles to have facial expressions, though here these mostly range from angsty to angstier.
So what does a teenage mutant ninja turtle have to brood about, anyway? Well, the city’s in trouble, you see, and Donatelllo (Mitchell Whitfield), Michelangelo (Mikey Kelly), Raphael (Nolan North), and Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) are the only ass-kicking turtles who can save the Big Apple from being overrun by red-eyed Egyptian statues, a clan of evil ninjas and exactly 13 monsters from a parallel universe. Here’s the story: In a platinum-tarnished flashback battle sequence (these scenes might have been lifted straight from another hyper-masculine comic adaptation, 300) we learn of a Egyptian “warrior king” who came across a portal to another dimension, one that opens up every 3000 years and grants passers-through immortality. Now that the portal is about to open again, the Turtles must stop tycoon Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) from entering it, thus bringing certain doom to the city, the country, the world! At least I think that was the deal.
The Stone Generals: General Aguila, General Gato, General Serpiente and General Mono
We have only vague indications of what “evil” means in the Turtles’ world, and so it’s hard to determine the real threat. The monsters resemble slightly nastier versions of something lurking under a little kid’s bed, yet Donatello walks us through an alarming sequence in which a digitized map of the world (Manhattan the epicenter) is quickly overrun by a red swarm of terror, outlining how much of a global threat these monsters pose. When these threats aren’t being showcased visually, the Turtles talk of “evil poised to destroy our brotherhood” and the “army of evil” that they must face together. Sounds familiar.
Luckily, there are still regular criminals out there too, and to combat that more identifiable brand of evildoer, Raphael moonlights as a vigilante called the “Nightwatcher,” foiling bumbling bad guys as they steal cars and hold up convenience stores. While this seems noble work and a worthy subplot, it mostly highlights a lot of guns. Though the Turtles would never stoop to using such rudimentary weaponry, this cartoon features gunplay throughout, which feels alienating and gratuitously threatening, especially given the film’s marketing campaign, which appears to target young children.
But the guns are also appealing to preteen boys, teeming with hormones and thirsty for justice. Though TMNT stresses the “anything for your brother” brand of moral fiber, it includes plenty of one-liners to underscore the Turtles’ thrill-seeking bravado (“Come to Daddy!”). More disturbing is the film’s depiction of women—all wasp-waisted and big-eyed. In one of the first shots we see a close-up of April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), dwarfed by Leonardo’s rippling, veiny calf muscle. Though she can kick some ass on her own, she just doesn’t compare to a Turtle. She lacks the phallus-shaped weapon, rock-hard biceps, and snappy comeback.