Panels to Popcorn: TMNT (2007)

GhostAndy

Polishing off my plan to post reviews of some of the cartoon related movies that I watched during my COVID-19 isolation here during my weekly articles here in May, I thought I should do another review of a more comic book related property than just some unrelated bric-a-brac. And given that last week on the podcast, we did a top 10 list of the “Greatest Street Level Superheroes”, it would be nice to pick one off that list as a way of promoting that episode again.

Of course, that was easier said than done, as most gritty street level characters don’t make for the best animated fare for the kiddies. But then I remembered that I pushed hard to include Raphael from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on our list, and if there’s one thing that’s been animated over the course of it’s life, it’s the TMNT franchise. So here comes another edition of my comics to cartoon comparison known as: Panels to Popcorn!

Of course, this particular entry is somewhat cheating because  it wasn’t specifically an adapted from a real comic book, I feel it should be allowed because more than a lot of other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies and TV shows, this one I feel attempts to stay more true to the original Eastman & Laird comic series from which the entire empire sprung.

What makes me say that you ask? Maybe it’s because they bothered to include a solid version of Casey Jones, the hockey mask wearing vigilante who along with April O’ Neil really provided the Turtles with their most dependable human allies. What can I say? I do love me some Casey Jones, and for me that love springs directly from reading all of those original comics.

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So without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into this 2007 CGI animated tale of how Raph finally fought Leo on screen, stone samurai beat up monstrous beasts, and for once Shredder was not the main bad guy (although the Foot Clan did appear…)

 

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TMNT (2007)

 

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Background:

Bringing the Turtles back to the big screen for the first time since the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III movie in 1993, the CGI animated feature was both written and directed by Kevin Munroe, who some comic book fans out there might know from the critically acclaimed comic book series El Zombo Fantasma which he co-created with Dave Wilkins for Dark Horse Comics.

The main plot revolves around the fact that in the wake of the Turtles defeating their arch enemy The Shredder once an for all, Splinter has sent Leonardo to Central America on a training mission of sorts to hone his skills as  ninja defender. In his absence, the rest of the Turtles have become aimless, being  forbidden to work as crimefighters without their leader under Splinter’s orders. That doesn’t stop Raph though as he adopts a masked alter ego named “Nightwatcher” and continues his patrols of the city.

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While all this is happening, April O’ Neil has been hired by this mysterious wealthy businessman named Max Winters for find 4 stone statues of ancient oriental generals. It turns out Max is actually an immortal former warlord named Yaotl, and the statues are actually the remains of his compatriots who used to terrorize the countryside with him as conquerors.

A curse has reduced them to this rocky form and the only way to cure it is to destroy 13 monsters who had been let loose on the world. With the help of the remainders of the Foot Clan led by Karai, Shredder’s “daughter”, the stone monsters carry out Yaotl’s wishes to find these monsters who have recently been let loose on New York City.

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Leo does return during these events, and with his fellow Turtles tries to make sense of what’s going on while saving as many innocent bystanders as possible caught up in this war betweeen Yaotl’s forces and the monsters. In the end though it turns out that while Yaotl wants to be free from his immortal curse, his generals enjoy their powerful stone forms and turn on him, forcing more monsters into the world in order to increase their strength. It’s up to the Turtles to stop the generals, close the portal full of monsters, and hopefully gave a pizza pie or two before it’s too late.

The Turtles were voice acted by some pretty neat folks in this one. James Arnold Taylor, who some of you might know as the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars: Clone Wars show and Ratchet in the Ratchet & Clank franchise played the part of Leonardo. Also Nolan North, who is well known as the voice of Nathan Drake from the Uncharted Series of video games played the part of Raphael.

Interesting enough, although most of the Turtle characters were voice acted by more of those traditional industry insiders I mentioned above, some of the supporting cast features some pretty well know celebrities lending their voices. We have Buffy star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, as April O’Neil which I think is pretty pitch perfect casting, Patrick Stewart as the main villain in the immortal warlord Yaotl, and in a somewhat of a massive coup de grace, Captain America himself, Chris Evans, as Casey Jones!

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Of course, this was previous to Chris landing the major MCU role as the leader of the Avengers, but still from a pure fan wank perspective, it definitely adds to the movie’s appeal nowadays.

Overall, the movie was a box office success pulling in $95 million dollars in ticket sales nearly tripling it’s budget. Despite this though, it was somewhat panned by critics as while having some terrific art direction, it was slammed for being overly simple.

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Initial Thoughts:

I will say that the main reason I enjoyed this movie was the fact that we got a really decent onscreen slug-fest between Leonardo and Raphael, well known as being polar opposites in someways among TMNT fans.

 

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They really represent those classic archetypes of the good cop/bad cop that we see all throughout pop culture. The team up of the boy scout vs. the bad boy, like Cyclops/Wolverine from the X-men or Ed Exley/Bud White from L.A. Confidential, the inner drama always comes from the fact that they are two sides of the same coin, never exactly meeting but necessary to each other in other to maintain the balance.

As such, it’s always awesome to see these types of characters finally go at it as they really do represent equal but opposing forces. This is especially true when you throw in the fact that Leo and Raph are also brothers, so they have that sibling rivalry component also mixed into the plot as Raph wants to secretly but desperately prove himself to his older brother and gain his respect.

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It’s one of the aspects of the comics that was never explored in the original 90s cartoon, but has been a staple of other on screen related materials ever since the first TMNT movie back in 1990. And in this particular showdown, Raph does prove that at least on that occasion he is the better fighter. But that prowess as brawler is undercut by the fact that he has massive anger issues, which will always give the more level headed Leo the edge in the end. Sort of like the duel between Anakin and Obi Wan from Revenge of the Sith, except Raph doesn’t doesn’t get his legs burnt off in the end.

Good Stuff though. Well worth watching the movie just for that.

 

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Final Grade: B-

This is a whole heck of a lot better than most animated TMNT attempts.

Well, scratch that. It’s better than the campy 90s version for sure.

I still don’t think it holds a candle to the best animated version of the franchise which was achieved in the near “Batman: The Animated Series”esque 2003-2009 show that ran on Fox’s Fox Box for the most part. That had insanely great plotting and characterization, which this particular movie also really does attempt to nail down, but ultimately I just don’t think it does it as well.

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As I mentioned above, the sibling rivalry between Leo and Raph is really the focal point of the entire characterization arc for the Turtles as characters, and although that’s very satisfying for the most part, it does draw attention that the movie really doesn’t care about the others, with Don and Mike being pretty much empty cyphers for the traditional “smart one” and “party animal” archetypes.

In fact, instead of spending any additional time fleshing those two Turtles out, the movie spends most of it’s free time building up the villain in Yaotl, the immortal warlord who is ultimately betrayed by his rocky subordinates. I can see where the movie is going with this as its trying to speak to the notion of “leadership” and draw parallels between the way Leo leads the Turtles and Yaotl leads his followers. I can also see that in delivering the whole “immortality is curse, not a blessing” motif, Yaotl is supposed to be cast as more of a tragic anti hero than a true villain, thus trying to deliver depth to the antagonist which I traditionally like. As I’ve often said, the true test of a good piece of fiction is often how well the villain is portrayed, so I can’t fault the movie giving Yaotl this noble character arc.

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However, still, this movie is not about Yaotl no matter how interesting you want to paint him in the absence of a “Shredder” type bid bad. It’s about the Turtles, and for the most part other than Leo, who gets massive character development, the rest are shown as somewhat of a whiny bunch, fussing overly unnecessarily about the absence of their fearless leader. I think that short changed their individual importance.

I would have rather seen the focus of the movie not be on this notion that the Turtles can’t be Turtles without Leo being their leader, because it paints an unrealistic picture of the dynamics of that group. It’s like if Iron Man and Thor wandered around sulking at Avengers Mansion because Cap took a sabbatical, it just doesn’t ring true in some way. As such, that simple conceit took me out of the narrative more often than not.

Still though, given Leo is my favorite Ninja Turtle and Casey Jones my favorite supporting character, I can’t complain too much about the decent screen time both of these characters get in this movie.

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I’m also a big fan of the strong parts both April and Shredder’s daughter, Karai, get in this movie as both are shown as being incredibly capable. Especially April, who has often been forced to play the role of the damsel in distress more often than not in TMNT lore. This movie makes her out to be more like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, a world traveling treasure hunter, who ends up bailing out her boyfriend more than the other way around.

Yeah, a definite “B-” as it’s not exactly “Cowabunga” worthy, but still not a bad outing if you are a TMNT fan!

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