Story Highlights• Review: New Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has promise
• Film, as was 1990 entry, based on comic book
• New film is computer-animated, action OK but needs humor
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird idly sketched perpendicular reptiles wearing ninja masks and bearing nunchaku in 1984, it was primarily for their own amusement. They gave them a name that was also a logo, and having nothing more profitable to do at the time, they inked out their first comic book, a spoofy homage to Frank Miller and Marvel Comics.
A relative loaned them enough money for a print run of 3,000 copies. Within two years "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was an underground phenomenon. By 1990, when the first live-action movie came out (following a late-'80s TV series), Eastman and Laird were grossing millions.
In crossing to the mainstream, the Turtles' image was significantly modified to appeal to a younger fan base. Violence was toned down, and beer drinking became pizza eating.
That live-action movie (starring stuntmen in turtle suits) became a surprise hit, blessing independent outfit New Line with a $100 million gross -- the first independent release to pull off that box office trick. Two sequels followed.
Now there's an animated feature comeback, this time aimed at the Web Generation. Written and directed by Kevin Munroe, "TMNT" is a passable brand rebooting exercise that will impress younger kids even if it doesn't satisfy older fans.
It kicks off -- a bit disconcertingly -- 3,000 years ago in another solar system, with a top-heavy explanation for a supporting cast including an immortal millionaire, several petrified generals, 13 alien abominations (all keeping a surprisingly low profile in New York these past few millennia), and (of course) the Turtles' old adversaries, the Foot.
Then it's off to Central America, where a swarthy Latin heavy is harassing some helpless peasants until a jungle ghost exacts retribution. To the relief of fans -- and anyone else wondering if they'd walked into the wrong movie by mistake -- this turns out to be Leonardo, de facto TMNT leader, and instantly recognizable for his dinky blue ninja mask (the Turtles are unusual among superheroes for sporting masks not as a disguise, but for identification purposes).
For reasons that remain obscure -- story sense is not Munroe's strong point -- our heroes have been on an extended hiatus. Their sensei, the rat Splinter, sent Leo south to brush up his leadership skills on his lonesome (no, it didn't make sense to me either). Back in the Big Apple, Donatello is working computer tech support. In the movie's best joke, Michelangelo dons a ninja turtle costume to work the kids' party circuit. And Raphael, the tortured adolescent soul of the quartet, sleeps all day and sneaks out at night for some solo action as "The Night Watcher."
Leonardo's return is supposed to bring the team back together, but it's the mysterious millionaire Max Winter and his nefarious stone henchmen who really do the job with an ill-advised kidnapping.
If the story feels like two TV episodes strung together, plotting was never what this show was about. It's more damaging that Munroe doesn't have much fun with it (where's Corey Feldman when you need him?). The film feels studious -- which is about as wrong as it gets.
But the interplay is solid enough, and the digital animation is a major plus: from sewers to rooftops, the urban backdrops are detailed and atmospheric.
Munroe also directs the action with some flair. A showdown between Leonardo and Raphael in the rain is like something Kurosawa might have shot -- had he been inclined to make movies about mutant green surfer dudes instead of samurai.
Among the voice talent, you may or may not recognize Sarah Michelle Gellar (April), Chris Evans (Casey Jones), Patrick Stewart (Max Winters), Laurence Fishburne as the narrator, and Zhang Ziyi as Karai, of the Foot. As with the previous live action films, the turtles themselves don't require any enhanced star power. If they can only stop acting their age there may still be some life in this franchise.
"TMNT" is rated PG and runs 90 minutes. New Line, like CNN, is a division of Time Warner.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back in action in "TMNT."
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