TMNT: The Rennaissance Reptiles Return
by Dr. Craig Reid
Regardless of all the great samurai films and Shaw Brothers classic kung fu movies, perhaps the most famous ninja warriors in the history of mankind and cinema - at least to Western kids - are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After a 14-year hiatus, they are returning to the silver screen. If you're not into fast food, then eat a tortoise or a snail; but if McDonalds and Pizza Hut are more your style, then the return of these rampaging reptilian bipedal heroes in their all-new CGI action adventure, TMNT 2007, will fit the bill.
Created in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, this parody gives a strong nod to Frank Miller's "Ronin" and "Daredevil" and shows artistic respect for Jack Kirby's comic book creations. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - quaintly named after masters of the Western Renaissance arts - are masters of the Eastern martial arts. This odd melding of "new wave yuppie-dom" with Eastern philosophy, tinctured with the Renaissance, occurred at a time when political correctness was not part of anyone's psyche.
This peculiar "shell game" evolved over the course of 23 years, beginning with a simple drawing by Eastman of a squat, turtle donning a Kato-like mask with a pair of nunchakus strapped to its arm. When you get down to it, this creature has Bruce Lee written all over it. Borrowing money from Eastman's uncle and giving thanks to the IRS for a $500.00 tax refund, Eastman and Laird formed Mirage Studios, created an oversized magazine-style comic book using black & white artwork on cheap newsprint (not unlike the way British comic books had been drawn and published since the 1960s), and self-published 3000 copies - which made waves at a local comic book convention in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Sheraton Hotel.
The first issue featured the tussling terrapins taking on the nefarious ninja "Foot" clan, inspired by the "Hand" clan from "Daredevil." That comic book's influence was further revealed through the Turtles' rat sensei Splinter, literally an arbor offshoot of Daredevil's mentor Stick. With issues coming out the wazoo, and further powered by merchandising, toys and crazed fans, the franchise grew to inspire three cartoon television series and three live-action movies. Now the Turtles have returned for a fourth movie, a number equal to the Turtle gang, a number that if said incorrectly in Chinese means death, a four-tuitous number and a true test of fandom - because the real question here is, "Will the kids from yesteryear, raised on pizza, 'dude' and 'cowabunga,' come out with their families to relive this pop-culture artifact in its new-wave CGI extravaganza form?"
Written and directed by Kevin Munroe, TMNT (without the "M" it would be an explosive acronym) begins with a dysfunctional family in turmoil, something our society seems to accept as normal anymore (a sad reflection on what we have all become). After the defeat of their old arch nemesis, Shredder, the Turtles have grown apart as a family. Struggling to keep them together, Splinter (Mako) becomes worried when strange things begin to brew in New York City. Tech-industrialist Maximillian J. Winters (Patrick Stewart) is raising an army of ancient monsters, and only one super-ninja fighting team can stop them -- Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor), Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) and Raphael (Nolan North). With the help of old allies April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans), the Turtles are in for the fight of their lives as they face the mysterious Foot Clan, headed by Karai (Zhang Ziyi), who have rented out their ninja skills to Winters' endeavors. As a curious side note, up until 2003, Michelangelo used to be spelled incorrectly as "Michaelangelo."
The concern of TMNT going back to its cartoon roots is that what made the first film, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990), so engaging (it's still one of the highest grossing independent films of all time) was that we knew four real guys were stuffed inside those cumbersome, clunky costumes, sweating like pigs, yet fighting like turtles who know the martial arts. When a film offers action with this real type of physicality, it's something kids can love, adults can appreciate, and it delivers what film watching is supposed to be about: fun. Can a cartoon still create that sense of awe?
According to animation director Kim Ooi, "Yes."
Besides the attention to the aesthetic quality of the backgrounds and characters, much effort was spent on choreographing the fight sequences for maximum impact.
Working closely with Munroe, Ooi was responsible for overseeing the execution of anything that moved on screen. Ooi says, "The Turtles' fighting style is derived from Chinese and Japanese-style martial arts. Many of the fight sequences were inspired by Hong Kong action films, but because we're doing CGI, we can push and stylize beyond the limits of live action."
Movement for each of the Turtles was also scrutinized to enhance their individual characteristics. Ooi explains, "For Leonardo, he's very confident because he's the oldest and the leader, so he walks very tall and has good posture. Raphael's the rebel, so he's got a bit of a swagger. Michelangelo is the more childlike one, so he's jumpy and restless. And Donatello's movements are more subdued because he's the intellectual one and characterized by more polite gestures."
In tackling one of the most action-packed sequences in the film, Ooi says, "There's a sequence where three Turtles, together with April, Casey and Splinter, are trying to rescue Leonardo. They have to go through tons of Foot ninjas to get into the tower, and it was the most challenging of sequences because there are so many things happening at once."
One thing that you will notice in this new film is the absence of nunchakus. I have always found it curious that after Bruce Lee's CHINESE CONNECTION, nunchakus were quickly condemned and are now considered an illegal weapon. Personally, I'd rather have two legal wooden dowels, doubling as escrima sticks, any day. This law was so rife in the U.K. that all sequences in the Turtle cartoons and films that had nunchakus in them were deleted. This changed in 2003, but once again it reflects the subliminal influence of Bruce Lee on the Turtles.
Production of TMNT took place over roughly 28 months, in California and Hong Kong. More than 300 artists were employed in Hong Kong and nearly 70 artists in Los Angeles, so with the time differences, people were truly working around the clock on the film.
Munroe remarks, "It was interesting to work with so many of the artists in Hong Kong because they have such a deep appreciation for martial arts, which complemented the style of the film. These are guys in their twenties who've been raised on kung fu action flicks, and when I would say things like, 'Okay, I want you to make your own kung fu movie in this scene,' they'd just go nuts over it."
In establishing a fresh storyline for TMNT, Munroe shares, "We didn't want to go back and remake the original, so we decided to start a new chapter in the Turtles' lives. We wanted to focus on each of the Turtles by emphasizing their family relationship and how it's evolved since the last time we saw them.
"Splinter has sent Leonardo away on a worldwide training mission, and he has become even more protective of the remaining Turtles by discouraging them from fighting crime without Leonardo."
As a result, the remaining Turtles' sense of purpose has been derailed by the humdrum of daily life. Tech-guru Donatello is reduced to providing computer technical support over the phone, and fun-loving Michelangelo resorts to entertaining kids at birthday parties as "Cowabunga Carl," a clown-for-hire in a "fake" turtle suit. Hot-headed Raphael, whose burning quest for justice doesn't wait for anyone, has assumed the secret persona of a solo crime-fighting vigilante, known to the outside world only as "The Nightwatcher." It almost plays like the cartoon THE INCREDIBLES where a family of out-of-work superheroes is fading into oblivion, trying to live normal lives in a normal society.
Munroe continues, "Splinter's biggest concern is the unity of their family. When Leonardo comes home from training, we see Raphael showing a little resentment towards Leo, kind of like a kid who's envious of his brother who went to college while he stayed at home to work in the family business."
Raphael's frustration becomes more apparent as the well-disciplined and perhaps a tad self-righteous Leonardo openly condemns the latest triumph of The Nightwatcher. Brotherhood and egos are put to the test when Leonardo catches the rogue crime-fighter in action, setting the two on a collision course that brings forth a never-before-seen face-off between Leonardo and Raphael.
With trouble brewing at home, even bigger problems lay on the horizon. "We continued the storyline that The Shredder has been defeated and, as a result, the Turtles' other nemeses, Karai and the Foot Clan, have basically become muscle for hire, acting as a private army for anybody who's willing to pay the price. And the man willing to pay that price is the enigmatic billionaire Maximillian J. Winters, who, as we eventually learn, is collecting monsters - and that comes as a result of the Turtles' archaeologist friend April O'Neil, who unwittingly helps him to create Armageddon. As a result, strange things begin to happen in New York City fueled by Max's secret plans."
With tension abounding, the tone of TMNT "is very different from the TV series and previous films," says the director. "Stylistically, it's more like the comics. The action's more intense, and the threat to the world is more intense, as are the emotions of the main characters."
Munroe's vision of the film was that each frame of the movie could be removed from the reel and be directly plugged into a comic book so as to recreate what made the Turtles successful in the first place. To do this, he sought the talents of veteran art director/concept illustrator Simon Murton. With more than 25 years of experience in film concept illustration and design, Murton counts among his recent film credits CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I ROBOT, VAN HELSING and THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS. Murton borrowed cinematic cues from certain black-and-white films from the 1940s and '50s, pushing the lighting and the environments to create the look and feel of an alternate reality. The look of Winters' monolithic tower was inspired by architectural illustrations from 1920s New York and Chicago.
For an action sequence early in the film where Michelangelo turns the sewers into his personal, extreme skate park, Munroe says, "Excellent examples from waterworks projects in Hong Kong and Japan were found and the pipes in those places have to serve such dense populations that they make for some very interesting designs and shapes, which, in Mikey's mind, are perfect for ollies and railslides."
Half the battle in creating believable, CG-animated lean green crime-fighting machines was fought by digital artists responsible for researching and developing the Turtles' overall musculature, along with such details as the translucency of their skin and each of the characters' defining traits.
"We designed full-on muscle systems for the Turtles because they're essentially wearing nothing but a sash and a half-shell," Munroe explains. "We also gave them unique characteristics. For example, on Raphael, he actually has veins that pop out whenever he flexes, and Michelangelo has freckles."
Apart from the reptilian crime-fighters, Splinter - a human-sized, mutated sewer rat - presented the animators with another challenge. As Munroe relates, "Not only is Splinter furry, but he wears a robe. So we fully rendered and animated the robe as well as his fur to show the effects of movement and outside elements."
Exterior structures ranging from muscles to shells to tentacles also had to be designed and animated for Winters' monsters, all 13 of them. "A few of Max's monsters are based on those in popular folklore. We also created some monsters that are slightly off the beaten path like a little guy we jokingly dubbed 'The Jersey Devil Monster,' which is a little crustacean-like creature who's basically a freakishly strong koala bear with a bad temper," jokes the director.
What's also funny is that shortly after Munroe and one of the film's producers, H. Galen Walker, had pitched the project to Laird, Walker and Laird were walking together when Laird suddenly stopped and put his hand across Walker's chest, signaling him to stop. When Walker looked down, a little turtle was crossing their path.
Munroe closes, "We've done everything possible in this film to fill it with wall-to-wall action and classic Turtle humor. At the end of the day, this is a story about a typical American family - that is, of course, if your family lives underground and saves the world battling countless ninjas and big bad monsters."
So the question remains. Will the kids from yesteryear, raised on pizza, "dude" and "cowabunga," come out to relive old pop culture and transform it into a new wave CGI extravaganza?
When I attended a recent press screening, I met a film critic who was the mother of a marine sergeant stationed in Iraq. She gleefully explained that the reason she was hording posters and containers of slime was because they were for her son, now 23, but a major Turtle fan as a kid. She was attending the screening to nab these things for him, so he could decorate his barrack's office. That about says it all.
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM