The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back in the spotlight, at least for this week. The franchise is celebrating the 23rd anniversary of the comic book and 17th anniversary of the first movie with the fourth film, simply titled "TMNT."
I'm not as excited as I should be.
Don't get me wrong; there are good stories to be told about my favorite heroes in a half-shell as they move into adulthood. It just doesn't look like this movie is going to be one of them.
The obvious explanation for my disinterest would be that I - no longer the 12-year old kid whose dad took him to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in 1990 - have outgrown the characters.
But I'd argue it's not me, it's Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello.
First, a brief history lesson: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird invented the green good guys in 1984 and churned out comic tales under their Mirage imprint. "Turtles" was sort of meant as a joke, but Eastman and Laird soon got absorbed by the mythology. (Splinter, the mutant rat pet of a murdered Japanese dude, raises four mutant turtles to kill the murderer, now calling himself "the Shredder".) Those early issues were dark, gritty, kind of great, and not really aimed at kids.
And the first film actually had characters, not characterizations like the TMNT cartoon. In the middle act, each Turtle grieves over Splinter's apparent death in their own way. Also, the unfamous director and cinematographer (for the record, Steve Barron and John Fenner) perfectly replicated the slummy, inner-city feel of the foursome's comic-book stomping grounds - and their literal sewer of a home.
The movie led to a humorous sequel ("The Secret of the Ooze," highlighted by Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap," to which the Turtles inexplicably know all the dance moves the first time they hear it) and a terrible three-quel (in which the Turtles use an egg timer to travel to ancient Japan and Splinter's voice changes).
Fourteen years later, a new movie is finally here, and the previews and reviews suggest it's not worth the wait. To "TMNT's" credit, it's not one of those lame and unnecessary origin relaunches "for a new generation" (absurdly, the Batman franchise is planning on retelling the Joker story - apparently Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" is just sooooo outdated).
Unfortunately, it looks like the franchise is trying to please today's children (the ones who buy toys), not the original fans (who - if I'm any indication - already have boxes full of toys in their parents' basements).
Sure, the Turtles are young adults now, but they are also computer-generated. There was absolutely nothing wrong with those Jim Henson-designed costumes, but now the Turtles inhabit the same stylishly lifeless landscape as "300" and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith."
Cartoonish silliness has also crept into the Turtles themselves. In the "TMNT" trailer, Mike is portrayed as a scaredy-cat, jumping into Leo's arms at the first sign of the bad guys. That's true to the cartoon, but totally ridiculous for the well-rounded character of the first three movies. And those bad guys - as far as I can tell, giant stone monsters summoned by Patrick Stewart - don't exactly have the same emotional tug as a cheese-grater-wielding scarface who killed your master's master.
I'm not saying the saga should have ended 23 years ago when the Turtles dispatched the Shredder in the first issue. To cite one example of an excellent further adventure, "The River" (Issues 24-26 of the original Mirage series) is a memorable yarn about Raphael reverting to non-mutant form before re-asserting his mutanthood (read: humanity) and coming to appreciate it.
But so many incarnations of the Turtles, with an eye on recapturing the early '90s fad, have failed to recapture the comics' (and first movie's) brooding thrills. "The Next Mutation," that 1997-98 live-action TV show with the female Turtle - which you had blissfully forgotten until I rudely brought it up - is only the worse offense.
I hate to say it, but this CGI "TMNT" with the out-of-character Michelangelo and the stupid villains looks like it can be added to the list.
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JOHN HANSEN, entertainment editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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