“Upon this Leonardo, I will build my family.”

Without shame, I admit that I have followed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since their beginning. Yes, this includes their over-sized comics from many, many (has it really been that many already?) years ago. When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the characters, they were a parody of Frank Miller’s (The Dark Knight Returns) run on Daredevil. That’s why you have the turtles sensei named Splinter (after Stick, Daredevil’s sensei) and why their arch-nemesis, Shredder, leads a group called The Foot (rather than the group of ninjas Daredevil so often fought known as The Hand). This was also before the property blew up into a life of its own and is on the cusp of its third wave of popularity.

The first came when the parody itself became parodied (Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos, etc.) ushering an explosion of independent black and white comics; the next came with the rise of the TMNT as television and movie properties; and now the CGI-animated TMNT movie.

“I just know something’s missing.” –Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor)

Set sometime after the defeat of their arch-nemesis, the Shredder, when we first encounter the turtles, they have drifted apart and lost their sense of purpose. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) has been reduced to tech support; Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) to kids’ party entertainment; Raphael (Nolan North) as a dark night avenger, Night Watcher; and Leonardo in jungle self-imposed exile, a training period, becoming a kind of desert father as he trains to be a better leader.

“I’m not afraid of any myth.” –Soldier

Besides facing their own internal struggles, the turtles are pitted against an ancient evil. Headed up by the mysterious Max Winters (X-Men’s Patrick Stewart), four generals–ancient horsemen of the apocalypse–they seek to open a portal so that their dark armies can pour through and swarm the world.

“Friends you choose, but never your family.” –Mr. Winters

The main theme of the movie revolves around restoring families. Both the turtles themselves need to mend their fractious ways as well as Winter’s family which is at cross-purposes. The turtles have to learn that they cannot fight evil when you keep fighting each other. Actually, families are more fluid than Mr. Winters allows, as the turtles have adopted members, April O’Neil (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Fantastic Four’s Chris Evans). On the other hand, Max seeks penance, to pay back some of the wrong his life has wrought. He is a leader-servant who simply wants to be fully human, even if it means giving up his immortality.

The other thing about family is that each has strengths and weaknesses. Families aren’t going to be perfect, and each member brings their particular gifts as well as their weaknesses. Recognizing them and compensating accordingly is the strength of an ideal family. For example, Raphael battles his own nature. He is angry, short-tempered, and passionate to a fault. However, his passion fuels his need to fight for justice and also his loyalty. The key is to harness those gifts by, as Michelangelo points out, “training by doing.”

“You’re going to quote a rulebook that you ain’t been following for years?” –Raphael

What makes the turtles so formidable is that they follow a sensei, a Master-Teacher. The turtles are disciples under Splinter’s tutelage. As Robert Webber put it “discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.” It’s basically apprenticeship., the goal of the student is to become as much like the teacher as possible. Discipleship would involve a changed in three areas: belief (as we turn to our Master-Teacher), behavior (our lives become slowly transformed, centering our lives around living out the kingdom mission; putting feet–action–to our faith and knowledge), and belonging (we join a specific faith community).

“So what happens now?”

The convoluted plot borders on nonsensical (something about thirteen monsters who have been loose in the world for the last 3,000 years, all in Manhattan, yet strangely have managed to keep an awfully low profile until now as they need to be collected). The CGI format is well-suited for the TMNT movie franchise, especially for the turtles themselves and the action sequences; however, any humans are poorly rendered (is it my imagination or are all the women in the movie in desperate need of a cheeseburger or two?).

Though a little overwrought and, yes, a lot of the goofy spirit of the television series is lost, this movie is much more in tune with the spirit of the original comic. (Didn’t we have this discussion when Tim Burton re-launched the Batman movie franchise? Many, many, years ago.) True, there’s no Shredder, but they have to save something for the next movie.

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