TMNT's storytelling is remarkably lean and uncluttered, and that's either one of the movie's greatest strengths or its biggest stumbling block, depending on how you look at it. Personally, I really enjoyed this breakneck approach -- the pacing moves at a steady clip, deftly alternating between brief scenes that advance the story and fluid, spectacularly choreographed action sequences that could never have been pulled off convincingly in live-action -- but I can understand why the uninitiated and even some purists might walk away disappointed.
For one, Kevin Munroe's script isn't mired in backstory. There's a very brief introduction to each of these characters, but I can see first-time viewers not completely following how some of the pieces fit together, and much of the supporting cast in particular probably seem like one-note, thinly drawn cariactures to those don't already know who they are. The movie focuses most heavily on the conflict between Leonardo and Raphael, pushing Michaelangelo and especially Donatello to the sidelines. This could grate on the nerves of some longtime fans, but I think the tighter focus on just a couple of characters winds up being more effective than trying to shoehorn in a B-plot for all four of the Turtles and the rest of the supporting cast. Although the Shredder is referenced a couple of times throughout the movie, it's a bold move to relaunch a potential franchise without its most recognizable villain, and TMNT pulls it off quite well.
The Ninja Turtles' media onslaught included a couple of animated series, a slew of live action flicks, and reams of comic books, all of which had vastly different tones and were aimed at different audiences. TMNT manages to deftly combine all of that into one movie, not drawing exclusively from any one source. It's dark but not unrelentingly grim, the action is swift and masterfully staged while remaining perfectly appropriate for a PG movie, and TMNT occasionally nods back to the scarfed pizza, skateboards, and cowabunga catchphrases of the first animated series without pandering to the younger crowd. I don't feel the least bit ashamed at 28 saying how much I dug this most recent take on the Turtles, and I wouldn't have any qualms showing this HD DVD to any of my pint-sized relatives either.
That's not to say that TMNT is some sort of instant classic like The Iron Giant or The Incredibles, not that that was really its goal or anything. TMNT sets out to be a live-action comic book, blazing through the story and pulsing with action, and that's precisely what it does. I do have a couple of minor gripes, though. More of its dialogue falls flat than not, particularly what's supposed to pass for comic relief from Michaelangelo. It's also kind of odd that so much of the conflict is anchored around Leonardo leaving his family to train to become a better leader, but he doesn't do much in the way of leading when the climax rolls around. Virtually everything related to the monsters is glossed over too. Have they been wreaking havoc for all these centuries? Have they always been holed up in New York, or am I correctly interpreting the hint that the creatures were drawn to New York for the planetary alignment? Why did Leonardo have to go to Central America to train by his lonesome anyway? Still, these are the sorts of questions I was asking myself after the fact, and none of those had me thinking any less of the movie while I was actually watching it.
I'm having a hard time imagining a more effective way to relaunch the Ninja Turtle franchise than writer/director Kevin Munroe has with TMNT. Despite not having the glossy $100 million sheen of a Pixar film, TMNT is animated with a remarkably sharp visual eye, and it strikes a balance that keeps the movie thematically dark and lurking in the shadows while still being cheerful and accessible enough for younger viewers. Munroe might want to consider bringing someone onboard to polish the dialogue when the inevitable sequel rolls around, but he's done a fantastic job making a franchise I haven't really thought about in fifteen years seem fresh and relevant again, and I'm eagerly awaiting a shot as seeing what he and the animators at Imagi pull off the next time around. Highly Recommended.
Video: As great as the standard definition version of TMNT on the flipside of this combo disc looks when upconverted on a high-def display, the 2.39:1 1080p presentation on the HD DVD trounces it. The scope image is much cleaner and far more crisply defined, revealing the fine leathery texture of the Turtles' flesh, the distinct and strikingly lit hairs on Splinter and some of the movie's beasties, and even individual drops of rain in TMNT's stand-out sequence, the rooftop brawl between Leonardo and Raphael.
The photography can be somewhat stylized -- a glimpse into a battle set thousands of years into the past is sepia-toned and cranks up the contrast, followed shortly by the soft, diffused lighting of a campfire chat between Leo and April -- and it's an approach that perfectly suits those early scenes. Those stylized exceptions aside, the image is consistently sharp and boasts a superbly saturated palette. Fine detail remains strong even in the movie's darkest moments, and the way TMNT plays with light and shadow -- particularly in the way characters are reduced to a silhouette when bathed in light from behind -- looks incredible in high definition. The only flaw I could spot was some occasional banding in the sky, but this is infrequent and easily ignored. Undoubtedly among the very best looking HD DVDs I've seen.
Audio: The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is every bit as impressive, bolstered by a devastating low-end that accompanies all of the gutteral moans, lumbering footsteps, and the meaty thuds of the punches, kicks, and acrobatic leaps. The mix makes similarly strong use of the surround channels, fleshing out the ambiance of Leonardo's jungle hideaway and the bustling metropolis of New York. It goes without saying that the sound design is at its most aggressive throughout TMNT's many action sequences, peppered with discrete effects as well as sounds that whiz from one channel to the next. The voice acting is clear and distinct throughout, never once overwhelmed even in the movie's most chaotic sequences. An exceptional effort.
Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 tracks are also offered in English, Quebecois-French, and Spanish along with the usual assortment of subtitles.
Extras: This HD DVD carries over the same set of extras from the Blu-ray and standard definition DVD releases. Somewhat disappointingly, none of 'em are in high-def or even in anamorphic widescreen.
Writer/director Kevin Munroe chimes in with an almost infectiously enthusiastic audio commentary. He spends a good bit of time describing how the story was reshaped throughout production, trimming the plot down to bare metal and shifting quite a few scenes around. Munroe references so many scenes that were yanked out along the way that I'm kind of left wondering how massive the original script must have been. Other notes include an initially monochromatic approach to TMNT's lighting, a family dynamic that had been lacking in the live action films, the upside of bringing in a production designer with no real experience in animation, and dialing down the relationship between April and Casey. Since Munroe both wrote and directed TMNT, there's a strong balance of comments about the storytelling as well as some of the technical hurdles that had to be cleared. The pace does slow down a bit as the movie goes along, but the commentary is by far the best of the disc's extras and is well worth a listen.
Munroe's audio commentary is the only of extra to offer much of a glimpse into the making of the movie. The five minute 'voice talent' featurette just focuses on Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Lawrence Fishburne as they shamelessly plug the movie. None of the other voice actors -- not a single one of the Turtles -- get any face time, and it's one of those vapid, extended trailer puff pieces. "Donny's Digital Data Files" (2 min.) is more substantial but far too short to offer much insight, touching briefly on the design and realization of this digital world, down to muscles, hair, foliage, and the Turtles' leathery texture.
A few additional and alternate scenes have been included, but annoyingly, there's no way to turn off Kevin Munroe's commentary, leaving most of the dialogue drowned out. There are two alternate intros: a comic book-inspired montage followed immediately by the Nightwatcher beating down a purse snatcher, along with an introduction that would've kicked off the movie at one of Cowabunga Carl's birthday parties. Two short deleted scenes further explore the relationship between April and Casey that had been mostly gutted out of the final cut, including a look at the awkwardness that had crept into their increasingly dull lives and a sugary-sweet alternate ending. There's also a grayscale animation of Mikey careening through the sewer on his skateboard, Splinter being delivered a slice of leftover birthday cake, and 'ninja tag' acrobatics leading up to the fight with the not-a-Sasquatch. All of this footage is provided in greatly varying states of completion; sometimes it's fully rendered and kinda polished, while others are in very rough animatic form or even just storyboards. There are around 20 minutes of this footage in total.
"Monsters Come Alive" is a three minute storyboard comparison that's also accompanied by audio commentary by Kevin Munroe, who touches on the storyboarding process and mentions the 'monster vision' and a high-octane motorcycle chase that were snipped out as production went along. The four minute Internet promotional reel rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: In between the few hundred thousand anthropomorphic forest critters with beaming grins and poppy dance numbers that have littered theaters over the past couple of years, it's such a welcomed change to see a blazingly fast-paced animated action flick like TMNT roar onto the big screen. This first salvo of the reinvigorated franchise should appeal to fans like myself who still remember tuning into that five episode miniseries twenty years ago as well as kids reared on the most recent Saturday morning incarnation. The meager extras and the bloated $39.99 sticker price may leave some leaning more towards a rental or twiddling their thumbs for a price drop, but fans who missed TMNT during its theatrical run should definitely consider giving the movie a look in high-def. Highly Recommended.