In Focus

One Fan's Chance to Get the Turtles Back in Fighting Form

By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

When the time came to reintroduce the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen, writer-director Kevin Munroe knew he was up for the task. Munroe had been a fan of the turtles since the original comic book series was published by Mirage Studios in the mid-'80s. When he got word that Imagi Production was interested in reviving the movie franchise, Munroe made it clear it was a chance the company should take.

"They were sniffing around the 'Ninja Turtles' license, and I told them I'd love to do something like that," Munroe said. "I told them, 'This is your chance to do a comic book, but it's got to be cool.' " It couldn't be "Over the Hedge," he said.

After Imagi and Warner Bros. gave the green light to make "TMNT" and return the turtles to theaters in computer-animated form, Munroe first had to win over turtles creator Peter Laird.

"I didn't have a theatrical track record, so I completely had to prove myself to them because this is my first movie," said Munroe, 34, by phone from Hong Kong. "I was in the Hollywood system for about a year and a half doing pilots for shows that never got made. If someone bought a comic book property, I became the guy to talk to. I went out to Peter [Laird] and pitched a story about family."

Not knowing if they'd ever meet again, Munroe brought an original copy of the first issue of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" comic book for Laird to sign. After spending a day with Laird, Munroe left the meeting unsure if he would get the film. Later, he would open the comic to see a drawing Laird had done of Raphael, one of the turtles, with the words "Dear Kevin . . . make a good movie . . . or else."

Munroe set out to make a movie that would appeal to a fan base that had grown up as well as to a new generation. His first hurdle was the hope that the original fans would buy into the new, computer-generated turtles. Despite numerous animated series on network television, the turtles were introduced on the big screen in the '90s with three live-action feature films featuring actors in turtle suits.

"I was like, 'Aw, man, people are going to flip out,' " Munroe said. "As soon as people heard CGI, they thought it was going to be 'Over the Hedge' with ninja turtles. I realized that was the biggest thing we had to overcome. It wasn't my decision, but now I would say if we had a choice, CGI is the only way to go.

"CGI works in three ways: It creates a believable reality. Also, I wanted to concentrate on family, and the only way you can get the facial expressions you need is with CGI. You're not going to get that with a guy in a suit. [Third,] we had a specific idea with what we wanted to do with the cameras. If we did the moves we wanted to do with a live-action film, you're talking 150 to 200 million bucks to make it. You have to do a movie you can't do on live television, otherwise what's the point of using animation?"

Munroe said he hopes the script he wrote will ease any doubts harbored by hard-core turtle fans about the presentation. The story finds the four turtles at a crossroads. Leonardo has been sent on a mission to Central America by their rat sensei, Master Splinter, to do some serious soul searching to become a better leader. Raphael, clearly affected by Leonardo's absence, has become a vigilante, fighting crime by himself in New York. Michelangelo has gotten into children's entertainment, hosting birthday parties dressed as -- what else? -- a ninja turtle. And Donatello, the brains of the team, spends his days in the turtles' sewer abode working phone lines as an IT guy.

Leonardo's Central American mission serves as a prelude to the action after a brief introduction of the film's bad guys (an evil force that surfaces every 3,000 years and, like clockwork, returns right as the turtles reunite). "We open the film in the jungle in Central America," Munroe said. "The idea is that you pay your eight bucks, you go sit down and it's, 'Wait a second. It's not in New York?' The idea is that the world is bigger than the sewers of New York that you've seen before."

Munroe tries to introduce the turtles in a new light. There's a "dude" here and there and the eventual slice of New York pizza to pay homage to the turtles' past, as well as an intense battle that fans have seen coming for years between Leonardo and Raphael to see who really is the alpha turtle. But Munroe said he hopes that "TMNT" will be seen as a family film as well as an action flick and that it grabs a new generation of fans without alienating the ones the franchise already had.

"Everyone has a tie into this franchise," Munroe said. "Either you grew up with it or your older brother did. My kids have teachers that are into the turtles. What's cool about the turtles is you have four characters with very distinctive personalities, and at least one of them you can relate to. The coolest thing, beyond the fact that they're mutated turtles, is they're regular people. They don't have any special powers. They just work hard and train hard to do what they do, and it's relatable because, as a kid, you feel like you can be a turtle if you practice hard enough."

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