Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the last 1980’s properties I expected to be resurrected from the dead, much less in a completely different medium and as a pseudo-sequel to the previous theatrical films. Yet when the first footage of brothers Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michaelangelo hit the Internet in the form of a trailer, I immediately began to salivate at the thought of TMNT coming home in high definition on HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
Re-imagining the Turtles in CGI as opposed to acrobatic stunt doubles in rubber suits opened limitless possibilities for their ninja attributes to shine through uninhibited. The turtles, their allies and their supernatural foes are presented as a flowing comic book come to life. Thanks to writer/director Kevin Munroe’s diligent efforts to push his animators, these new-age Turtles are the most convincing incarnation yet.
What strikes me most about TMNT is the growing conflict of interests between Leonardo and Raphael that builds into the films showpiece, a nighttime rain-drenched rooftop battle between vindictive brothers. This secondary arc overpowers the main arc surrounding an immortal warrior seeking mortality, but more importantly, plays off strong emotions both kids and adults can relate to. I completely forgot the Turtles arch-nemesis, Shredder, was absent after becoming invested in Leonardo and Raphael’s family feud.
A large portion of the Turtles” success can be contributed to Munroe’s careful selection of tone from the TV series, the theatrical films, and the comic book series. Rather than go all-out dark like the comics or full-on cheese like the TV show, Munroe mixed in pieces, like the Leonardo/Raphael showdown, with plenty of Donatello, Michaelangelo, Casey, April and even Splinter antics to satisfy the little ones. This decision to target a broad audience and treat the source material and continuity with great respect is crucial to help rebuild the Turtles as a brand, and ensure the sequel hinted at by the Foot Clan’s new leader comes to fruition.
The Leonardo/Raphael showdown’s visual complexity is a technical wonder befitting the VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer Warner has included on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc versions. Colors and contrast look absolutely spectacular throughout the film, even considering the often muted palette and dark locales. TMNT doesn’t pop like brighter CGI films ala Chicken Little, but there’s no fault to be found in this excellent presentation of the Turtles” gritty urban world.
A relatively new and consistent trend at Warner is to offer lossless audio tracks on HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc for new theatrical titles, “TMNT” included. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless mix on either version is solid on all fronts; from active surrounds during rooftop chases to thunderous LFE when an energy beam connects two worlds. There’s a fair amount of dialogue-intensive scenes in TMNT, so the only real complaint might be there could have been more bang for the buck worked into the script.
Aside from a TMNT Internet Reel Trailer, the extras on this disc are broken in two distinct sections and, unfortunately, presented in standard definition only. Warner’s decision not to include an In-Movie Experience track or Internet connectivity on HD DVD is a blessing to Blu-ray owners as their inclusion may have delayed the Blu-ray Disc release. Instead, the Blu-ray version will cost $3 to $5 less than the Combo Format HD DVD version for the exact same high-def film presentation.
The first section, Behind the Story, focuses on making-of material through short featurettes and a Feature-Length Commentary with Writer/Director Kevin Munroe. Kevin makes it clear this project was his baby from the day he was greenlit to helm it. He does an admirable job for his commentary, mixing in small doses of humor with countless tales of trials and tribulations he suffered in getting the project completed on-time and on-budget. The most interesting reveal is Kevin deliberately built the entire film in black and white before adding a hint of color in order to pull off proper shadows and highlights. This was a smart move that paid huge dividends towards the film’s final aesthetic.
Further proof that TMNT is Kevin’s labor of love appears in each short featurette where he provides voiceover commentary as well. In Voice Talent First Look, the well known voice actors like Patrick Stewart and Sarah Michelle Gellar chime in with their thoughts on the project. Sadly the other actors are nowhere to be seen while their characters are introduced. Monster’s Come Alive is a storyboard depiction of Casey and Raphael fighting the Stone General offering comparisons to the early and completed shots. Donny’s Digital Data Files is the most insightful featurette with heaps of inside information on how the characters and environments were rendered, several using proprietary software written solely for use in this film. The last three featurettes, Mikey’s Birthday Party Full Sequence, Roof Top Workout and Still Wanna Fight? would have made more sense to include in the next section, Additional Footage, as that’s exactly what they are.
What Additional Footage does include are an Alternate Opening backstory with storyboards and voiceover by Splinter as opposed to Lawrence Fishbourne, and Alternate Ending in grayscale with a pivotal moment between Casey and April destined to appear in any sequel, and a fantastic character scene between Splinter, Mikey and Donatello aptly titled Splinter Gets Cake. This comedic scene, above any of the other proposed and cut scenes, should have been included in the final cut.
CGI films are highly coveted high definition releases for their digital-to-digital transfers and stunning artificial imagery. TMNT not only fits the profile for another must-own animated high definition treat for its technical merits, it also triggers nostalgia in adults and has already entertained a whole new generation with the goofiness and family values that embody the turtles. It’s gorgeous to look at, witty, and pushes the Turtles story into a new direction. That gets an all-around big old “Cowabunga” from us, dudes.
– Dan Bradley