'TMNT': Testudinal Fortitude

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

If you have to ask what "TMNT" means, this movie probably isn't for you -- you're so far behind the curve you'll never catch up.

It's the fourth in a series chronicling the adventures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who live under the streets of New York and come out to fight for truth, justice and pizza by night, but it's the first to arrive in complete computer-generated imagery. That's not bad, that's good. For me, at least, seeing actual humans in the roles of mutated terrapins with samurai swords and burglar masks -- so you wouldn't recognize them, I suppose -- was too much of a stretch.

Here, under the direction of Kevin Munroe, who oversaw a fleet of geeks hunched over terminals ("Faster, number 23, faster!"), the movie's world, the characters, the outsize plot, all of it at least makes some kind of coherent sense, but maybe that's just the grown-up in me, searching desperately for those props called "rules." It's a far grittier, grungier kind of New York than in the previous films, and the detail has been worked out to a thoroughly impressive degree. In fact, as a piece of film design, the movie is first-rate; on sheer aesthetics alone, it rivals "Triumph of the Will" for astonishments.

As a movie rather than a design exercise, it's also not without its pleasures. The vocal performances (Patrick Stewart, for one; Sarah Michelle Gellar, for another, and of course, the adorable Ziyi Zhang, for still another) are vivid. The action sequences are well done, particularly a dust-up between Raphael the "Maverick" and Leo the deposed and now returned "leader." They fight with Japanese weapons, because although they're turtles, they're still ninja. Hmm, but how come, the old concrete-head in me keeps thinking, how come Raph carries sai, or sword-breakers, those three-pronged tools the bailiffs used to carry to disarm unruly samurai? The only other people carrying samurai swords were his brothers, so why is he prepared to fight only them and no one else? Again, the ancient concreteness of my mind is getting me in trouble here.

Anyway, only on one issue does "TMNT" pretty much flop. That is its plot. Or rather its plots, all 16 of them. It gets off with a big splat, a chunk of exposition so dense not even a 13-year-old could stay with it. It goes something like this: 3,000 years ago a mighty warrior set out to conquer the world, at the same time benefiting from a unique alignment of the stars that (a) granted him immortality, (b) turned all his generals to stone and (c) unleashed 13 monsters on the world. Now, 3,000 years later, those stars are about to realign again, and when they do, if he can catch all 13 bad hairy things and send them back up the stairway to heaven, his generals will cease to be stone and he will cease to be immortal. So he hires ninja to capture the monsters, who have moved to New York where they fit in with the population.

So there's him; there's that ninja team (headed by Ziyi Zhang's Kaira, a part the actress must have recorded in about 15 minutes one morning); then it turns out the stone generals don't want to go up in the sky, so they form another team; meanwhile, our heroes, themselves riven by internal stress (Raph is ticked at Leo, who is meanwhile having doubts), are also trying to catch the monsters, but also another vigilante named "Nightwatcher," who is actually . . . well, it's like trying to count the stars; fella could go nuts.

The upshot is that the film is technically superb and quite enjoyable as long as you don't bang your head against the plot, which will cause hot flashes, premature aging and fallen arches.

TMNT (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for visual intensity.

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