The words “improbably good,” or some similar sentiment have chased around the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise around for some time. It certainly describes the quality of the original independent comics the characters were birthed in, the financial success of the merchandising empire that followed, and even the not-as-dated-as-you’d-think charms of the first feature film all the way back in 1990. Now, once more, here they are again: This film, an (apparently) mid-budget CGI-animated 4th sequel to a franchise who’s last tepid entry washed out of theaters over fourteen years ago… is GOOD. Improbably good. Immediately one of the better action films of 2007, an absolute must-see for current and former fans and a genuine marvel at working both as a solid “hard-PG” action offering and a delightful family adventure pic. What a lovely surprise.

There’ll be a certain quaint Geek Irony should this film be the release that unseats “300” from the top of the boxoffice (prognosis: improbably good.) The Turtles made their debut as a mid-80s underground independent comic book series from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, heavily spoofing the Marvel Universe of the time and in-particular “300”-progenitor Frank Miller’s ninja-saturated “Daredevil” run – the go-to “hot” book of the time. Though MOST of them didn’t at first come to it in that form, almost any living member of Generations X and Y can quote you the Turtle Lore verbatim: Four turtles turned into wisecracking humanoid mutants by toxic waste, trained in the martial-arts by and named for Renaissance painters by a similarly-mutated rat named Splinter, operating out of a hidden lair in the NYC sewer system, engaged in constant stuggle with the evil ninjas of the Foot Clan under the villian Shredder. From this humble and decidedly indie-edgy origin came a syndicated cartoon series, and from that came a merchandising cash-cow the likes of which hasn’t been seen since. That it occured once was incredible – that it could now occur twice doubly so.

The new film picks up an unspecified number of years after the events of the previous film (prick up you’re ears, oldschool fans, you didn’t misread that: This is in-continuity with that prior entries, even the 3rd if you’re paying close-enough attention.) The Shredder is dead, the Foot Clan has been reduced to working as mercenaries-for-hire, and the Turtle “brotherhood” isn’t what it used to be. Leader Leonardo (swords, blue mask) has been off in South America honing his ninjitsu in the jungle, surfer-dude Michaelangelo (nunchucks, orange mask) and brainiac Donatello (bo staff, purple mask) are working crummy jobs to keep busy and hothead Raphael (sais, red mask) is a brooding, introverted wreck, doning an armored disguise and sneaking out as a vigilante at night to circumvent Master Splinter’s (voice of Mako, making this the late legend’s last film “appearance) ban on crimefighting until Leo returns. As for the extended-family, perennial Turtle buddy April O’Neil has traded in her reporter’s mic for the rare antiquities scene while her boyfriend, sports-equipment-armed vigilante Casey Jones, is wrestling with issues of “settling down.”

The maguffin (or two) that gets this fractured bunch back together – and into action – again, it turns out, eventually reveals itself as a pretty interesting, unpredictably-twisty setup involving a media tycoon, an ancient battle, a group of living-statues, a gaggle of surly para-dimensional monsters and even the semi-reconstituted Foot Clan. The degree of actual story and substance is impressive, considering both the pedigree and the fact that it’s really just an impetus to re-establish the “TMNT” family-dynamic, particularly the interupted-animus between Leo and Raph which boils-over into a truly excellent fight scene.

Stylistically, it keeps pretty close to the visual style of the first film, i.e. a hybrid of the original comics’ intentionally Miller-esque urban grit and the more whimsical animated version. Relative newcomer studio Imagi provides the animation, which is noticeably less polished-looking than industry-standard Pixar but makes up for it with a great production design and a well-chosen sense of nostalgia for colorful “edge” of pre-Guiliani Manhattan. The character design looks GREAT for the Turtles, who’ve simply never looked better, and the imaginatively-designed monsters; but falters a bit in regards to the humans: April and Casey look a little TOO doll-like and cartoony, next to the paradoxically more real-looking Turtles (Karai, the Zhang Ziyi-voiced new leader of the Foot Clan, on the other hand, looks terrific and doesn’t have enough screen time.) Bottom-line, though, is that they ALL look great in motion.

(FYI, Imagi’s next slated project is a PG13 CGI-animated feature version of the Japanese anime “Gatchaman,” remembered as “Battle of The Planets” or “G-Force” to many of you lucky folks who’s folks got Cable early on. I’ve decided I like these cats.)

Though it’s clearly (and wisely) got it’s eye on the new generation of potential audiences, the film is tight-packed with details and asides to reward the original fans who’ve come back to see if any of the magic is still there: Oldschoolers should definately keep a sharp eye on all the continuity-confirming treasures strewn about the Turtle Lair, and at my showing a single exchange hinting at whom the (hoped-for) next installment’s Big-Bad might be had the 20-somethings expressing enthusiastic delight. And, dammit, there’s something just-plain-good about seeing these old “friends” being pretty-much the way you remember them. It’s not just a “fanboy-wank,” but it DOES understand that it’s dealing with a mythos that’s tied heavily to the sacred memories of youth for much of it’s prospective audience and it takes that “responsibility” seriously. If the Toy-Toon Generation is as incensed by the upcoming Michael Bay “Transformers” adaptation as many of them fear they’ll be, look for “TMNT” to be frequently cited as “how NOT to eff these things up” Exhibit-A.

Oh, here’s something ELSE you can look forward to: A whole lot of end-of-civilization carping when this “toy commercial” hits big bank with family audiences while “The Last Mimzy” belly-flops. Y’know what? YES, with it’s New Age spiritual underpinings and environmental message “Mimzy” has the market cornered on good intentions compared to “TMNT’s” just-for-fun/nostalgia bounciness… but “Mimzy” is still a leaden dud while “TMNT” is alive and kicking with terrific characters and grand family-friendly high-adventure.

I’ll be smiling all weekend, thanks to this movie. Thank you, Imagi – but please work on rendering better human beings for “Gatchaman.” Thank you, thank you, thank you writer/director Kevin Munroe, for giving me one of the good parts of grade school back again – and doing so in a full-on, legitimately great little movie. The best “Ninja Turtles” movie ever.


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