Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thoughts on TMNT, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie

After reading Al Fin's post on the rising neoteny of Western youth and Agnostic's post on "Category X-ers", I feel a bit ashamed to banter at length about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, TMNT.

But with a limitless number of entertainment and information sources available today, the number of national sensations continues to decline. There are so many options available on that vast expanse that the population becomes fragmented, so that one person's favorite is entirely unknown to the next person. Sites like YouTube provide on-demand video entertainment at no cost, while P2P networks make just about everything that has ever been produced, professionally or otherwise, available to everyone, all the time.

In music, a similar phenomenon has occured, except it's even worse. The album has become antiquated. Now, you load up your favorite tracks--all 20,000 of them--mixing and matching artists and genres as your fancy sees fit.

The gaming industry retains a degree of uniformity through the economies of scale needed to make MMOs enjoyable, but on the single player side, the biggest hits tend to ride on the momentum of their franchise legacies (Final Fantasy (XII), Madden (2008), Resident Evil (4)). That is what the TMNT movie has going for it, providing my justification for self-indulgence.

The movie (nice plot summary here)departs from the live-action of the past, embracing the stunning computer-generated imagery of Imagi Animation Studios. The early scene in which Mikey zips down through the pipes on his skateboard and deep into the bowels of the New York City sewer, and the first scuffle the foursome has with one of the monsters, show how much can potentially be done in creating all kinds of creatures, battles, and effects. [supercilious tone on] But the movie didn't utilize the potential as effectively as it could have [/tone off].

With those awesome animation tools at hand, the temptation has to be to do too much. One of the major battle sequences has the Turtles rumbling with an enormous sasquatch-bear monster, which is simultaneously fighting the Foot clan. On top of that, they're fighting at the top of an apparently wall-less industrial building. There is so much going on that is difficult to focus on any character specifically, so that when the monster and all the turtles go crashing down floor after floor, your mind is reeling as you try to make sense of who has been pummeled and who is still fighting.

Even more overwhelming is the battle scene near the end, when the four turtles, April, Casey, and Splinter (!) are busting through the Foot defenses. With the seven taking out multiple Foot, you're trying to sort out twenty-some characters as they flip, spin, and kick, all the while running toward the building housing the monsters.

Pulling off an action movie with four major characters who fight together is a challenge because of this anyway. The animation enhancement allowing them to leap twenty feet in the air and pull off one roundhouse after another only accentuates it. Two fighting protagonists, usually of different ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds, is optimal as it allows for contrast, some dialogue, and extra battle complexity without sacrificing too much in the way of character focus and development (Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst in Hercules, Norris and Clarence Gilyard in Walker).

Previous Turtle movies, in recognition of this, had storylines primarily featuring Leo and Raph (to my chagrin, as Don has always been my favorite). TMNT is at its best in the interplay between the two conflicted brothers, and there is a genuinely emotional moment when Raph presents Splinter with Leo's broken katanas. But with the exception of the battle between the two of them, all of the movie's fight scenes are cluttered.

Like the battles, the cast is overwhelming. It includes the four Turtles, April, Casey, Splinter, the 3,000 year-old business magnate Max Winters, his four rebellious generals, the Foot clan and its new leader Karai, thirteen legendary gargantuan monsters, and forest thugs and street thugs that have speaking parts. There are lots of minor characters like police officers, city dwellers, and the like as well. The movie's run-time is only 86 minutes. That's a lot of characters to contend with in less than an hour-and-a-half.

Such a weighty cast could work, though, if a full-flushed development wasn't required in-movie. The excitement for a film like this comes from nostalgic fans, many of whom are parents today and are happy to make their tykes part of the clean, good-natured, disciplined world of the Turtles. These veterans are intimate with the four brothers, Splinter, Casey, and April.

But what about all the other staples they know? Where are Krang and his Rock soldiers, Leatherhead, Baxter Stockman and his mousers, the Rat King, Bebop and Rocksteady (who, despite being entirely absent in the movie, are mentioned in the first lines of the song playing as the credits roll!), Usagi, Metalhead, Slash, the Frogs?

All of these characters have histories that returning fans will know and that new ones can revive interest in. Why introduce so many unknown characters when so many of the original have yet to appear on the big screen? When April tracks Leo down somewhere in Central America, there is no background needed. Duh, we know they know each other and we know who both of them are. We can explain it to our kids or younger siblings, sharing in their interests while putting our own didactic spin on things--a potential marketing goldmine!

The movie's opening narration has a battle of conquest raging from 3,000 years in the past, among characters totally unknown in the Turtle universe, giving the movie an unwanted generic feel, similar to the opening ancient samurai battle in the third movie. Baxter in fly-form, like so many of the other villains, was not viable in the live-action movies. Now that barrier has been removed.

Without changing the flow of the story, Leo could have been training solo in the Louisiana bayou instead of an unspecified Central American village. When April goes looking for him, she is accosted by Leatherhead but saved by the foursome's leader.

The two return to New York City, where Shredder and the Foot have made a comeback. With Shredder's muscle, Krang is preparing to open the portal to dimension X and rush in his Rock soldiers for global conquest.

Baxter, an essential part of figuring out how to open the portal, has turned on Shredder and Krang after being made into a mutant in one of Krang's experiments and after having been shut out of the power and prestige he felt entitled to in the New World Order the miscreants have planned.

As a hideous anthropogenic fly, Baxter must now live in hiding in the sewers. Excepting the sovereignty of the Turtles' home, which he has come to accept, the Rat King considers New York's underbelly his personal fiefdom. By pushing back an assault on Baxter's new dwelling by the Rat King and his verminous minions, the Turtles gain the aid of the scientist. He agrees to help them destroy the device Shredder and Krang are building to open up the dimensional portal before it's havoc can be unleashed.

They make their way to the Technodrome, where they must contend with legions of Foot, led by Rocksteady and Bebop. The climatic final battle ensues in the main chamber of the Technodrome, with Don and Baxter working feverishly to disable the device as the portal is beginning to open, while the other three Turtles, Casey, and April (who has gone from news reporter to entrepreneur and martial artist) attempt to hold off the Foot and its allies, which includes Metalhead, a Krang creation designed to destroy the Turtles).

As is, the chance of successful continuity seems slim, since the plot was so fantastic and subsequent ones will either appear mundane in comparison or have to be even more over-the-top. This has been the fate of previous attempts to reinvigorate the series, all of which have chosen to depart from the blockbuster cartoon series in significant ways (in terms of the Turtles' interactions with one another, TMNT actually reclinates back toward the series television roots more than other reincarnations have).


Sam said...

There are a few mistakes. First of all Chris Tucker starred in Rush Hour, not Chris Rock. And while I agree that FF XII and Madden rely heavily on their previous incarnations, I wouldn't say RE 4 does. It completely reinvented the series. Many people who had never played a RE game before (like me) gave it a shot.

Very good blog. Wow, the plot you came up with sonds really good! Much better than the convoluted mess that TMNT was.

Audacious Epigone said...

Thanks, I fixed the Tucker error.

Of course I don't do the shoot-em-ups, but were the sales of RE4 head-and-shoulders above par for the series? It certainly isn't a liability from a marketing perspective, anyway.

You're a precocious kid you know. Glad to see that having just entered high school, your grammar hasn't been ravaged by the IM/Myspace assault. No doubt much of it stems from being raised in the same household as your ingenius older brother.