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Sunday, March 25, 2007

TMNT

I had another of my weird dreams this week. In this one I am standing on a stage, facing a huge crowd in an auditorium. There are glaring lights pointed directly at me so I can’t actually see anyone in front of me, but I know they are there, waiting for me to speak. I look nervously to the side of the stage at the dust-covered burgundy velvet drapes as if there might be an answer in the wings, but there is only darkness. The audience stirs in its seats and I know they are waiting for me to speak. I look down at the ‘50s style microphone, clear my throat, and finally say what they have been waiting to hear. “My name is Grace and I am a Turtle Virgin.”

Suddenly the theater erupts in a deafening roar and I feel myself being pelted from all sides by tiny pasta shells. Somehow, in my dream, I knew that this was part of the ritual. Whenever someone new joined the audience here to see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie it required the requisite baptism by shells. I woke up, startled, and wondered if I would be forced to admit my naiveté about TMNT when I went to the
Essex Cinemas to see their new movie over the weekend.

Fortunately, there was no microphone at the front of the theater on Saturday when I joined a herd of kids and teens to check out TMNT. This audience was pumped, having watched the turtles’
television shows and previous live-action movies, played their various videogames, and owned everything from lunchboxes to underroos as they’ve grown-up. Me? The closest I’ve come to turtle lust was when I was in Budapest and found some of those wee turtles that aren’t allowed to be sold in the US any longer. You know the kind. Kids in the 1960s and ‘70s used to keep them in those oval-shaped plastic trays with an island in the middle and a plastic palm tree sticking up above the rim. They were great pets for the two or three months they usually lived before you either overfed them or they got loose and became dog kibble. Anyway, here they were, as adorable as ever! I was so smitten I considered smuggling a few of those little rascals on the plane in my bra, but I wasn’t sure either they or I could handle a nine hour flight with amphibians roaming from cup to cup. Still, they were sure cute and they had me primed for more turtles just like the rest of this audience, all of whom broke into applause and hoots of approval as the lights dimmed. I hadn’t heard that much screaming from a group of kids when the lights went out since my one unfortunate visit to Neverland Ranch, but that’s a whole other story and you’d have to ask Michael Jackson (or the California State Police) for the 411 on that one.

So TMNT is really fun. The animation is beautiful, a lot more so than you’d probably expect. The cityscapes are gritty and detailed and when it rains the drops are so realistic you’ll feel you just might get wet. The environment is a big part of the movie here as New York becomes a character of its own, giving the turtles and their foes a limitless skate park in which to kick each other’s butts.
The turtles themselves are more realistically enhanced than in previous incarnations, but are still voiced to perfection by their original players. Raphael (Nolan North; Lost Planet: Extreme Condition) is the cranky hothead, Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield; "W.I.T.C.H.") is his opposite, the cool-headed mediator, and Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley; tv’s "Shorty McShorts' Shorts") is the feisty kid brother. Missing is oldest brother Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor; tv's "Johnny Test"), who we find is living in South America as a recluse. Leonardo has spent a year on a spiritual quest to learn to be a better leader to the group, and he feels he is still not ready to return until fate and old friend April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar; Happily N'Ever After) shows up unexpectedly and lures him home just in time to join the clan in saving the world from one more madman’s scheme to destroy the word. Isn’t that always the way of things?

The great thing about
TMNT is that the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, and stepping up or standing down are all blurry enough to merit discussion by the characters and they do just that. Young viewers will learn that sometimes what appears to be cut-and-dried isn’t necessarily so and people who you think are the villains aren’t always the bad guys just because you don’t like what they are doing or you don’t like the way they look. Without knowing their whole story it is too easy to jump to wrong conclusions and end up with some very serious consequences. These lessons play out surprisingly well in the story and flow organically with the action without seeming obvious or forced.

There are certainly enough surprises to keep adults interested and reasonably impressed with the level of writing. Despite the “Cowabungas!” Michelangelo is prone to letting loose during his skateboarding acrobatics, the script is written as if it is expected that all those watching have a reasonable intelligence and can follow a complicated plot and understand subtle family dynamics. There is definitely a lot going on in the Turtle home as well as at April and Casey’s. Casey (Chris Evans; Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) is “Mr. April O’Neil” as it were and when April isn’t watching her husband/boyfriend, he is sneaking out of their apartment window and donning a mask to become a vigilante crime fighter. It’s a nice idea (and one that you’ll see becomes more popular with time) but it may not be best to play Batman with only a baseball bat for protection.

So much goes on during
TMNT that it could easily have been two different movies; it just feels chock-full of action from start to finish. The film also includes a reputable cadre of actors to give it weight, including Patrick Stewart (X-Men: The Last Stand), Laurence Fishburne; Bobby), the late and always great Mako (Memoirs of a Geisha), Ziyi Zhang (also of Memoirs of a Geisha), and director/actor Kevin Smith (Clerks II) in supporting roles.

TMNT probably will get trashed by the critics if for no other reason than that is it not a Disney or Pixar cookie-cutter, American cheese, white bread kind of cartoon. This is hardcore animation. No, not that kind of hard. Hard, like a turtle’s shell. Just don’t be slow about getting on down to the Essex Cinemas to see it.

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