Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2007)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 3/23/07
Producer: Peter Laird
Director: Kevin Munroe
Cast: Chris Evans, Laurence Fishburne, Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako, Zhang Ziyi, Tara Strong, cameo by Kevin Smith

Awesome! Finally, a TMNT movie that isn't a complete embarrassment. While I certainly enjoyed the original film, it suffered from being overly juvenile and silly. The second and third films must never be mentioned. This new iteration on the fighting turtles manages to honor the entire franchise, by getting back to its dark and gritty comic book roots while also incorporating elements of the cartoon series and films. It doesn't reboot the entire series, but instead takes place sometime after the original defeat of Shredder. Leonardo has been sent away to Central America to train and become a stronger leader, which tears apart the cohesiveness of the band. Donatello now works as an IT tech support specialist, while Michaelangelo hires himself out as a birthday entertainer and Raphael feeds his dark needs with vigilantism. The story uses the familiar "getting the band back together" theme, where the four brothers have to reconcile their differences and work together as a team to overcome a deadly threat. That threat presents itself in the form of a 3000 year old curse that's about to plunge the Earth into darkness as a plague of monsters descends upon it. Only the combined forces of the turtles, April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Casey Jones (Chris Evans), and the Foot Clan (led by Zhang Ziyi) can save the planet from such a calamity.

Within seconds of the opening titles you realize you're in for a treat. The film is dark, gritty, tense, angry, and violent, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia about the original comic book series. The art direction is spot-on with Eastman and Laird's original designs, with the exception of the human characters which look overly cartoony and have a strong "The Incredibles" aesthetic. The writing definitely has a comic book feel, but is very serious minded and captures the essence of the original Eastman and Laird series perfectly. The only bursts of juvenile dialog and behavior come from the fun-loving Michaelangelo, which is the only evidence of "cowabunga-era" mentality in the film. Great stuff. All of the characters are superb, and the cast features some very impressive talent including the late, great Mako as the wise and noble Splinter. The only character that's had a complete overhaul is April O'Neil, who is no longer a television news reporter, but a globe-trotting adventurer a la Lara Croft, who runs her own shipping business and is also an expert swordswoman. While I welcome her transformation into a female warrior, it was a difficult transition for me to make mentally.

The computer animation is spectacular and the art direction, cinematography, and editing are superb. The fight scenes are fast, frantic, and violent, and while they're exciting to watch, I would have preferred being able to see what was actually going on a bit better. Still, since we're not watching real bodies performing, there's not as urgent a need to get that up close and personal. The musical score is dramatic and moving, and only occasionally breaks out into inappropriate popular music. What I find most interesting about the film is that Kevin Eastman didn't appear to be involved at all, and that this was Peter Laird's baby all the way. I applaud his efforts to return the turtles to the big screen, and the franchise is back on track with great potential. I can't wait to see the hinted at sequel, as long as it remains true to the look and tone that's already been set.