Despite being one of the most successful franchises in pop culture, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been problematic when it comes to feature films. While Steve Barron’s 1990 feature film remains a solid entry, the subsequent live-action movies have not brought out the best or even the ridiculousness out of the Heroes in a Half-Shell. After the likes of Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, maybe animation is the way to go for the Ninja Turtles and while we have to wait next year for Seth Rogen’s animated reboot, a previous version of TMNT is getting the movie treatment.
Aired on Nickelodeon for two seasons, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was considered a divisive reinterpretation as despite the familiar beats and characters that have defined the franchise, it was too radically different for the longtime fanbase. While criticism towards some of the liberties are valid, it was interested in telling a variety of stories from ten-minute segments with a heavy dose of comedy, to ongoing narratives that pushed the action envelope through stellar animation.
In the case of the show’s film sequel, which you can watch on Netflix, series developers Ant Ward and Andy Suriano aim to go bigger, directing their debut feature. Starting with a dark future-based prologue, in which the alien Krang has invaded the earth and the resistance has fallen, Leonardo (Ben Schwartz) sends his student Casey Jones (Haley Joel Osment) back in time to stop the invasion by finding a key that allowed the Krang to come to the earth.
Certainly one of the issues that fans had towards Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the depiction of Leonardo, who was no longer the mature, disciplined leader of the Turtles, and was now boasting a less serious, joke-cracking personality. This film addresses that criticism with Leonardo going through an arc, in which he learns what it means to be part of a team. The conflicting team dynamic has always been a recurring theme in nearly every incarnation of TMNT, but this film manages to put a lot of emotion.
Along with new player Casey Jones, who serves an emotional anchor for Leonardo, the central relationship is between Leo and his big brother Raphael (Omar Benson Miller), starting out with brotherly misunderstanding and sibling conflict, which leads to some shocking dramatic tension that causes Leo to rise as the team’s new leader. While Michelangelo (Brandon Mychal Smith) and Donatello (Josh Brener) get the short end of the Bo staff when it comes to development, all four Turtles have a triumphant moment together when they are finally on the same page.
Considering the majority of TMNT media has been aimed at children, there has always been a dark undercurrent from the original Mirage comics to IDW’s The Last Ronin. Released on Netflix, the filmmakers manage to get away with things that you normally wouldn’t see on children’s television. Along with a prologue showing a dark future, in which our heroes get decimated, you have the Krang, not holding back from being grotesque alien monsters with a good dose of body horror that might upset the kiddies.
Given the initial controversy towards the show’s character designs, the animation itself was one of its saving graces and now with a movie budget, this is one of the dazzling animated movies in recent years. From an action standpoint, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles evokes the style of Shonen anime and with this movie’s narrative of an alien invasion taking place in a vibrant, stylized New York, this is an exhilarating watch that deserves a chance on the big screen.
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