Oscar History

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Tim's Toons: The quickly-forgotten Ninja Turtles animated movie

Tim here. I hate to even mention Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the new film that looks like it copies all of producer Michael Bay’s bad habits while compounding that with director Jonathan Liebesman’s clumsy hand and lack of Baysian visual style. So soon after Nathaniel went to all the work of updating the Oscar charts, it feels a little like being the guy who takes a crap in the punchbowl.

And yet, we are driven by the tides of history, and like it or not, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the big new release this weekend, because that’s how August works. So rather than pout and moan and try to find anything else to talk about (“Hey you guys, it’s the 75th anniversary of the Popeye Short Hello, How Am I this week!”), I shall play the hand I have been dealt, which means that we now to get to talk about the one and only time that the famous of martial artist reptiles were in a completely animated feature film.

That being TMNT, which despite its sort of ‘90s-ish X-treem title, actually came out in 2007. Honesty requires me to say up front that, from any objective standpoint, TMNT is not very good at all. [More...

The story is a hokey bit of fiddle-faddle involving ancient Mesoamerican spirit warriors and extra-dimensional monsters coming to contemporary New York, where they face off against the four ninja turtle brothers, trapped in the midst of an overly protracted family squabble that takes most of the movie to resolve itself. Even accounting for the fact that it’s a kid’s movie (though one that obviously yearns not to be), and certain broad-strokes character-building is necessary and even welcome, nothing that happens to the turtles is even a tiny bit interesting, fresh, or insightful.

But the name of this column is “Tim’s Toons”, not “Tim’s Story Stucture & Characterization”. And on the level of animation and design, TMNT is, legitimately, one of the most amazing-looking cartoon features of the CGI Age. 

It was the first theatrically-released feature for Hong Kong-based Imagi Animation Studios, and very nearly the last. To be sure, looking at it in motion, it has a bit too much shallow fluidity and weightlessness, looking “cheap” in a way that mega-budget American animation doesn’t. The trade-off is that it has a more off-kilter, distinctively Asian design mentality, one that isn’t quite so hung-up on realism and physical plausibility as Western theatrical animation.

More importantly, it’s gorgeous. The fantasy-noir feel to the locations, something like a kid-friendly Expressionism, is miles beyond most of the low-budget, just-get-the-thing-made animation of other movies and TV made to approximately the same marketing ends. It’s stylized far beyond any run-of-the-mill kid-friendly junk food, with attention paid to world-building and lighting that legitimately competes with the very best of Pixar in terms of its ambition and delicacy, even if economic limitations necessarily mean that TMNT can’t be as complex

This only takes us so far: the human character designs are pretty awful, and their movements slippery enough that it’s genuinely unpleasant to look at them. But this is, after all, mostly a film about the turtles, and the humans aren’t present enough to ruin the look of the thing more than intermittently.

The script, though… the script is a problem constantly, and it’s what kept the film trapped in the kid-flick ghetto in ’07 and has made it impossible to take it seriously for even a moment of the intervening seven years. It’s insulting, meandering, and frequently incoherent, and no matter how many drop-dead beautiful stills I throw at it-

-nothing makes its script, which somehow manages to be tediously predictable and completely incoherent at the same time, any better or more tolerable.

It is, in short, an ideal movie to put on in the background with the sound off, like a video art installation. Which I can specifically vouch for, since that’s what I did for the second half. It’s still enough to put it ahead of the new movie, undoubtedly, which looks like absolute hell on top of having peerlessly unpromising talent behind the camera. But it would be nice to be able to say “this is a lost classic of 2000s animation!” instead of awkwardly promising that no, it looks really great, no matter how rancid it is otherwise.


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Reader Comments (4)

I did not see this when it came out but you're right that it was quickly forgotten. I didn't even remember it existing!

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

My roommate went on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kick recently, and so we ended up watching this. I confess that the terrible script blinded my eyes to its visual appeal, but these stills are gorgeous! Almost enough to make me watch it again. Almost.

I look to you in all things animation, Tim, so I have to ask: any thoughts on the original TV series?

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I only remember two things about this movie.

b) Ziyi Zhang's rather unfortunate voice work where she's too hard to understand. I hate saying that about people for whom English obviously isn't their first language (nor should it be), but she was indecipherable in some parts.

And least the turtles look better here than they do in the new one.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I saw that. It was OK but I would rather see that than the new version. Oy, that looks awful.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

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