Friday, August 22, 2014

Balancing the Adjectives

My introduction to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not very different from many people in my generation. The 1987 cartoon took the world by storm and established, in the minds of many the show was aimed at, what the turtles are and/or should be. However, I was quickly unimpressed by the cartoon, but I enjoyed the toys quite a bit. However, being caught up in the moment, I did try to get my hands on as much TMNT merchandise as possible. It was in 1989 when I was in a local open-air mall's Waldenbooks and found a colorized compilation of the first three issues of the original comic (plus two side stories), collected and published by First Publishing. Its earnestness blew me away. It was a dark, interesting, and challenging vision of the turtles and I tried to share it with as many people as possible. Many shrugged it off, though, and I felt like I had found a gift from an alternate reality, one where creators took the turtles as seriously as I wanted to take them. It wasn’t really until the 1990 live-action movie when “my” turtles congealed as a very handsome mix between the comics (speaking to its tone, story, and artistic awareness) and the cartoon (in terms of the personalities, April as a reporter, the pizza, the bad jokes). But the turtles––and their world as presented by that movie––felt believable, and I approach any iteration of the TMNT franchise looking for that kind of balance, not only between the two iterations, but of the adjectives of the title.
My ratty & well-worn copies of the First Publishing editions.
When it comes to story, I’m a “character guy,” and my biggest criticism of the comic is that the turtles are very mature and focused and there really isn't much diversity between them in terms of character and wants and needs and flaws, etc. The brothers are basically a single unit and serious exploration of their individual inner lives isn't really explored until fairly well into the comic’s run (well, volume IV of the First Publishing editions). Sure, the cartoon's personalities were over the top and dumb, but they established a precedent and did approach these characters in a way that the comics didn't too often: they were teenagers. The turtles in the comics were basically the stoic, strong-jawed, bared-teeth superheroes that they were created to parody. The fact that the cartoon really is the first time that they opened up the teenager aspect of the franchise must be reason enough to give it credit––if not much, because better creators in better times would explore that aspect much better. But if I missed anything from the cartoon while reading the comic, it was that diversity of character, even if it made up for that lack in other ways.

When I say I’m a “character guy”, what I mean is that as long as a character is intriguing, hinting at an inner life (or strife) and has a satisfying arc, then I often don’t care about the surrounding story because the character is, at least, believable, sympathetic, and engaging. If the character is good, I will gladly watch an action scene or a simple shot of the character talking to friends around a table. Perhaps this is why I have no problem sitting through The Postman (though, even I can’t help but groan a bit at the schmaltzy third act), or why I can easily look past the French-Canadian accent of Christopher Lambert’s immortal Scottish Highlander, or even sit through a total of ten hours and thirteen minutes of Transformers movies because I can’t wait for the next time Optimus Prime shows up on screen.

It’s because of this reason why I was mostly content to sit through Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Hand-picked by the movie’s Executive Producer, Michael Bay, Liebesman’s turtles could have easily lost me (as they, without even seeing the movie, seemingly did to many TMNT fans): they look drastically different from pretty much every other interpretation; they have a convenient origin story around which the movie’s plot revolves, and it’s even more ridiculous than the previous “canon” as established by the original comics and/or the original cartoon; they have super-powers; and their visuals are completely computer-generated. Many of these complaints echo what entitled nerds were screaming simply at the reveal of their designs, months before the movie came out (at least they become more justified after the release of the movie). However, none of those things have to do with character. That list is made up of simple points of fact and are not indicative of how they behave, how they interact, and what their flaws and strengths are.
This is titled, "Leonardo Leads." It's from an
unfinished series of "Sad Turtle" drawings.
These points of fact are malleable anyway and have shifted, moved, and changed––sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly––throughout every iteration of the franchise. Aside from having mutated turtles that are ninja who live in a New York sewer and who have a rat as a teacher and father-figure––everything else is pretty much up for grabs and has been constantly changed and revised because there is no continuity, there are only reboots or adaptations. The only aspect that has been added to the canon since those basics were established in the original comic is the individual personalities of each turtle: Leonardo should be the good son, Raphael should be the contrarian hothead, Michelangelo is the goofball, and Donatello is the nerd. These characteristics weren’t really nailed down until the cartoon, however.

So, if a finger must be pointed at the first major offender, then we would have to put the original cartoon on the pyre and watch it burn. They made some drastic and––if put through the lens of today’s standards––outright blasphemous changes from the comic, and not all of it was simply to make it more palatable to a children’s television audience. For example, why did Splinter have to be a human who was mutated into a rat? In the comic, he was always a rat. Why are the turtles unhealthily attached to pizza? Pizza was nowhere in the comic. The comic was serious––R-rated, even. The people who loved the original cartoon lambasted the 1990 live-action film for being too different from the cartoon, though it shared much more with the original comic than the cartoon ever did (editor’s note: an additional 1500 words were removed from this Boast because I went off on a defense of this original live-action movie; you’re welcome). You could call these changes adaptation for whatever the current market is (and, to be honest, that is at the very heart of the franchise if you go back to the Eastman & Laird parodic creation of the comic itself), or you could just chalk it up to creative people trying to make this very strange concept work in their heads.

For me, I only had one criteria (aside from the few facts that needed to be met, as outlined above): before they are teenagers, before they are mutants, before they are ninjas, and before they are turtles, they are brothers. They can have super-powers, they can go into space, they can be April’s former pets, but when the story gets going and they are the Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael that we expect, they must behave as if they have known each other since birth––raised together, gotten mad at each other, supported each other, blamed accidents on each other, lied to each other, pranked each other, praised each other, and get excited for each other. Above everything else, this is a need for me with the turtles. If one gets hurt in a fight, and another asks, “Are you okay,” it shouldn’t be said in the way that Captain America would say it to Iron Man. They should be severely worried, they should have a strong emotional bond that only siblings have––that’s what makes them more than a team of heroes gathered together to fight a common enemy: they fight together because they have to protect their family because they’re all they’ve got.

More than that, I want to see this play out in their downtime. The first live-action movie illustrated this beautifully. There’s a lot of horseplay, joking around, petty sucker punches, and honest, believable tenderness toward each other. In the first live-action movie, we get a nice long scene that takes place on a farm as they wait for an unconscious Raphael to recuperate from a severe beating. A guilt-ridden Leonardo waits by his brother’s side day after day, his head hanging in sorrow. When Raphael awakens, Leonardo and Raphael embrace in an earnest emotional moment. In an attempt to inject some brevity in the emotionally heavy scene, from off-screen, Donatello quips, “It’s a Kodak moment,” which gets everybody laughing and, in a natural and familial way, brings everything back to normal.
"Donatello Does Machines"
In the new movie, a few scenes really showcase their brotherly attitudes. In a scene I’ve been calling the “Shushing” scene, the turtles have sneaked out of their lair to fight some bad guys against the advice of their father, Splinter. They were successful, but––as they returned home––were worried about Splinter finding out about their absence. So, using their ad-hoc ninja training, they sneak back into the sewers with the hope of being unseen and unheard. As they get close, someone’s foot makes a sound and the nearest brother shushes the offender. In response, the first brother shushes back. Another brother shushes the first two who gets shushes in response. Pretty soon it’s a gyre of shushes that feels like the annoying one-upmanship of a group of siblings strapped in the backseat of a car on a road trip. When Liebesman takes advantages of those moments, the movie shines and allows me to stay on board through the trainwreck that is the story of the movie.

For all the things the new movie got “wrong”––and I mean in the sense of narrative choices and basic storytelling––it gets the turtles so very right. Even the most cynical of TMNT fans can’t deny that Leo is Leo, Raph is Raph, and so forth, and not simply because of the color of their bandanas. At many points (and the director had no onus to follow it), Liebesman drives home the fact that these are four brothers that are in over their heads, and amid the conspiracy, action, and violence, they are struggling to find their individuality among the unit that their father has trained them to be (as expected, the story partly revolves around Raphael storming off in a huff, saying he quits the team). To that end, the story resolves itself nicely, albeit inside a very ridiculous moment that has its own problems.

The new Ninja Turtles movie tries to be much more than it should be––and if there’s anything to blame Michael Bay for (there’s not), it’s that. It tries to be bombastic and big, but that misses the heart of what the turtles are and shines when they are that their best. In a world of action movies that focuses on fast cars, nigh-abstract CGI, paper-thin plots, and overly-long run times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about family, and even with all the bloat that the new movie has, it succeeds because, somewhere along the way, someone remembered that.

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