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Cowabunga: Turtle Power returns in “TMNT”

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

“TMNT” is a reunion only the movies could arrange. Like so many treasured gems from the ’80s, “TMNT” takes a laughably delightful premise and reminds us why we fell in love with it in the first place.

Or not. If these heroes in a half-shell failed to endear themselves to you a decade ago, there’s a good chance “TMNT” can’t redeem them now. Fortunately, writer/director Kevin Munroe and his creative team never confuse their film for high art. This latest movie, like all three that preceded it, caters exclusively to the fans. And it’s better off for it.

“TMNT” plays out like a run-in with four dear childhood friends. Like most pleasant memories, they’re just like we remember them. Mostly.

After defeating Shredder and saving feudal Japan, our heroes have grown apart as a family. Leonardo no longer leads, instead traveling the world to hone his fighting skills. Raphael is as cool but crude as ever, ignoring orders as often as he cracks heads. He’s gone ronin, roving the rooftops of New York as a more brutal vigilante called The Nightwatcher.

Donatello and Michaelangelo are now the breadwinners of the family. Working from home as a tech support consultant, Donnie still does machines. Mikey is a party dude. Literally. His alter ego, Cowabunga Carl, is a popular but abused MC at birthday parties for kids. Meanwhile, Master Splinter waits for the inevitable reconciliation between his four sons. When he’s not meditating, the radical rat spends his days watching soaps.

These are all fun touches that ease us back into the franchise, leaving plenty of angst to drive the story forward. Plus, it’s nice to know how these turtles get the bank to fund their pizza habit.

Aided by perennial favorites Casey Jones and April O’Neil, the turtles need to wrangle 13 mythically ugly beasties and thwart four stone villains in their attempt to achieve – surprise, surprise – immortality.

Like its predecessors, “TMNT” never flexes a muscular plot. It’s more like what turtle stew tastes like, I imagine. Thin and sloppy, the plot is completely in service of its characters. The best moments in the movie come when the turtles act like a family. They relax, joke, squabble and roughhouse together just like they did 15 years ago.

In a long-running franchise, fans develop expectations for their heroes. A giant turtle nut himself, Munroe wisely takes all these moments, splashes them into a blender and whips up a green potpourri that borders on recycling, but without the boredom that sets in from having seen it all before. He never crosses that line because we really have never seen the turtles quite like this.

As he’s done before, Raphael needles Leonardo mercilessly, culminating in a spectacular rooftop fight. In a moment made for the movies, rain starts pouring down as they prepare to face off. Inspired by the very best Hong Kong martial arts films, they leap, chop, parry and lock weapons in a dizzying sequence that was never possible in the restrictive live-action escapades.

For the first time, a turtles movie succeeds in putting the “N” in “TMNT.” Jim Henson and his puppeteering posse did an admirable job dropping the turtles into the New York of the ’90s. “TMNT” shows us that they shouldn’t have been realistic in the first place.

The goofy rubber suits are gone, replaced with razor-sharp CGI, superb art direction and an inspired visual style. Each turtle has been given a distinct body build to fit their personality and skills. Mikey’s as lean as a California surfer dude, while Raph is stockier and bulkier than his brothers, reflecting his role as the brooding bruiser.

Even New York is cooler than we last remembered it. Its rooftops are cluttered with fire escapes, water towers and skylights – all of which come in hand as the turtles bound across town.

Pixar is the undisputed king of computer animation, and every frame of its films reflects its tender loving care. Far more than recent competitors like “Open Season,” “Over the Hedge” or “Meet the Robinsons,” “TMNT” is the closest in style, scope and looks to the Pixar gold standard.

Consider one scene near the film’s conclusion. After saving the day again, we find the turtles back in their sewer lair. Splinter is retiring a villain’s armored helmet to his wall of fame. Lining the shelves are all the icons of their mythic past. Shredder’s helmet and staff, the remnants of the fateful TGRI canister and the time scepter are all there.

Shots like these, with all their loving details, are toasts to the fans. “TMNT” is an 87-minute string of them that adds to the half-shell legacy. It echoes the first “Turtles” film in tone and sentiment, with hints of the breezy camp of the two sequels. It’s not a great film, but that never makes it any less fun.

Throughout “TMNT,” Munroe makes it abundantly clear how fond he is of this quartet. With nostalgic affection, he reminds us why we picked our favorite one and played pretend. Man, it feels good seeing the turtles.