Where’s the Ninjitsu with These Mutant Turtles?

9 Aug

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are comic book heroes who had a lot of soul back when it first saw print. When creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird spent time working on their property, interest in their heroes in the half shell was high. The cartoon that evolved from it had a lot of spunk for kids to love, but it was its own beast since its light-hearted humour helped make the turtles pop culture icons. But for the original comics that was darker in tone, fatigue, creative differences and the need to move on by one of the artists caused the two to part ways.

Laird eventually sold the franchise rights to Nickelodeon, and what has evolved from it has become contentions between those who loved either the original comic book, one of the many cartoon series, role-playing games or live action films. The series changed from its gritty world to that of adventure and campy humour.

The current computer animated series successfully blends the two together. But with a film to reboot the theatrical series by producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman, the latter pairing is the prerequisite choice. Their method of madness is to reinvigorate this realm with high-octane action in only a style Bay can emphasize — let’s slow down the fast-moving sequences with hang time moments, include a villain who belongs more in a Transformers movie and toss all logic aside.

In movies, origins are expected to be rewritten so that it has more cinematic style. This story apparently draws its influence from IDW Comic’s retelling by Eastman and the film is not going to be to everyone’s liking. Splinter is under utilized, Shredder is a train wreck, the turtles look meaty and the team’s repartee is weak. More time could have been spent building their kinship up. Also, they are designed to look more like Wrestlemania fighters. And just how the heck can Donatello fight with all that tech he’s wearing? Wouldn’t some of the gear he has on displace his delicate sense of balance?

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Splinter is a key character that the turtles look up to, and with no monk-like spirituality infused into him, he’s no better than the students. There’s no mojo in this rat. Tony Shalhoub does not imbue this character with any respectable personality.

By comparison, Shredder has a streak of callousness that can be felt in the performance by Tohoru Masamune, the only real highlight of this film. This villain is a true ninja since he’s been trained by human masters. He also prefers stealth while ruling the Foot Clan from a secret abode. New York is being besieged by them and the police are unable to make a dent in the shift of power. Any other criminal organization may well be cowering in fear from them and that makes Superman’s job easy. But this Manhattan is not based on the DC Comics or their cinematic universe. There are quick moments where it tries to imitate Batman, but it just does not work.

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They are also defying everything that’s holy about studying a martial art which defined the series as a whole. Youths most likely will not flock to dojos after this film. The original set of TMNT live-action movies and cartoon series had some younglings wanting to learn how to properly spin a nunchaku or use the katana properly. This film, not so much. What’s worse is that this film shows how a fighting discipline can be learned from a book! Maybe a small amount of skill can be gleamed, but without understanding the higher purpose of what a martial art is, these turtles are hardly adolescent black belt hamsters either. Ninjitsu emphasizes to their warriors that they should leave no traces.

The only character that surprisingly seems remotely close to playing up the stealth angle is Karai (Minae Noji), the Foot Clan’s Number One, the go-to superior. Sadly, she is not fully utilized in this film and her importance will not get expanded upon until the second or third movie. Once when there is more meat to this film series, Karai may well be a foe to look out for.

This big scale movie has the feel of being better off as a direct to video release than a blockbuster to end the summer with. Although Nickelodeon Movies is trying to make a dent in the cinematic world, their track record is not so good with half of their last four films not winning accolades. Converting animated properties to films work if it stays in the CGI realm. But when it comes to live action, what’s next by this studio — Spongebob Squarepants — looks scary; maybe management is saying something about themselves by revealing the fact that they are indeed a Sponge out of Water?

2 Stars out of 5

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