After 13 years, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are returning to the big screen. Unlike their previous three films, this time the turtles will be brought to life through computer animation. Rotten Tomatoes was invited to have a look at the new film, and talk with two of the principal creators; producer Tom Gray and writer/director Kevin Munroe of Imagi.
Author: Travis Fickett
The turtles have already seen a successful revival in the form of an animated series that began in 2003. This convinced Tom Gray, one of the producers of the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie, that it was time to bring the heroes back to the big screen. But this time, he knew things would have to be done a bit differently than the Turtles’ heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"To do the turtles in live action it would cost over a hundred million dollars," Gray said. "Doing it in CG is not only more economical, but we can do a lot in CG that we couldn’t do in live action."
The footage shown in the preview reel was a testament to this fact. The movie looks big and the camera zips through tunnels and flies over a very nice looking digitally reproduced New York City. The look of the film, while computer generated animation, manages to maintain the feel of a moving comic book. There is a gritty texture to the art, but it never tries to go for the photo-realism of something like Final Fantasy. The stylized feel is partly due to the involvement of Art Director Simon Murton, better known for his work on live action films such as "The Crow."
While not a direct sequel of the previous three films, "TMNT" is also not a complete re-imagining. This is not an origin story, instead picking up with the turtles after they’ve had some experience and adventures. The story, conceived by Munroe and Turtles’ creator Peter Laird, begins with the Turtles in disarray. Splinter has sent Leonardo on a quest to South America, and when he returns he finds the Turtles broken apart and a new vigilante named "The Night Watcher" is patrolling the streets. Munroe and Laird felt that it was time to move on from Shredder and his Foot Clan, so a new villain will be making a debut in this film.
Along with the Turtles and Splinter, reporter April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones will also appear in the film. This time around, April is voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar while Casey will be voiced by Chris Evans, best known as the Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" films.
"We fought for the turtles to be played by people who were not known actors," says Gray, talking about the casting process. However, for April and Casey it turned out that Evans and Gellar were both fans of the turtles and wanted to be involved. Patrick Stewart also voices a character and Laurence Fishburne is providing some narration. "We didn’t want to do the Dreamworks thing where everyone is a famous player," Gray added.
One unfortunate turn of events for "TMNT" was the death of legendary Japanese actor Mako, who lends his voice to Splinter. While Mako did record all of his dialogue for the film, he died one day after his involvement with the film was announced.
"His character stayed intact and it’s a really good performance," said Munroe. He’s a dad. There’s such a warmth to his character and a seasoned quality to his voice."
Because the turtles were at the height of their popularity in the late ’80s and early nineties, many of the original fans are now adults. However, with the new cartoon and toy line, there are many new fans in a much younger demographic. Gray and Munroe were asked how they were going to address this disparity.
"We wanted to take care of our fan base, first of all. Those are what we call "the alums" who were there with us in the ’90s. We wanted to make a movie that would be satisfying to them, push it a little bit without actually going into the PG-13. We don’t want to dumb it down with too much ‘cowabunga.’"
The fight choreography developed through working with the Hong Kong animation facility, where Chinese animators took the designs and direction from Los Angeles and turned them into full blown animated sequences. "We originally were going to bring in a fight coordinator," said Gray. "But at the end of the day we didn’t need it. The people in Hong Kong having grown up with Jackie Chan and John Woo movies, it’s in their DNA. They knew how to do choreographed fights! I was astonished."
According to director Kevin Munroe, "TMNT" is "The quintessential turtles movie; big and fun." He didn’t feel it was necessary to make one film for a younger audience and then use lots of inside jokes and innuendo for adults. Instead, the action and the relationships between the turtles will have a shared appeal for a broad demographic.
The question remains if audiences will eagerly embrace a new Turtles movie, but "TMNT" does seem to have a lot going for it. From the design of the characters, the gritty look of the animation to the frenetic and inventive action sequences, the movie seems poised to recapture the elements that made the turtles such a unique phenomenon the first time around.