SAN DIEGO — During the late '80s, a young filmmaker took on a cultural icon that had seen its dark history spoofed, ridiculed and eventually abandoned by Hollywood. Lovingly revisiting the project's roots, Tim Burton reinvented "Batman" for a new generation, laying the blueprint for the superhero-movie revolution that followed.
With the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, writer/director Kevin Munroe is determined to oversee a similar revival, and in order to do so, he's prepared to raise shell.
"What you're seeing is the rebirth of the franchise," Munroe said recently, getting ready to unveil the 21st-century incarnations of Donatello, Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Raphael. "The over-the-top-ness worked for [a while], in the same way the Adam West stuff worked for what [the 'Batman' TV show] was. But it's getting back in this culture to where people expect a certain amount of grounded reality to it.
"Once we suck them in with that reality," he continued, "then we'll start pushing the look of the monsters, creatures and hundred-foot-high ninjas fighting four turtles."
At Comic-Con (see "Comic-Con Recap: 'Spider-Man 3' Surprises; Snoop, Samuel L. Reveal Inner Geeks"), attendees were stunned as Munroe and series guardian/producer Thomas Gray finally unveiled the slicker, more intense turtles that are being rendered in CGI for a new movie in March. Loyal TMNT fans, however, saw it as less of a transformation than a homecoming.
"I bought them in 1989, when I was head of production for Golden Harvest, a Hong Kong company," Gray said of the Turtles, which had begun five years earlier as a subversive underground comic with Frank Miller-spoofing imagery and two young art-studio rejects in charge. "I remember sending a letter to my boss, Raymond Chow in Hong Kong, saying, 'Raymond, don't think I'm overindulging in pharmaceuticals, but I think there's a great project we should pick up: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." ' He said, 'Are you out of your mind?' "
After an early '90s phenomenon fueled by cartoon shows, action figures and three movies featuring stuntmen in green latex, the Turtles fizzled out, becoming the easiest punch line this side of Ernest P. Worrell.
The thing about fads, however, is that if you wait long enough they become hip again. Sure enough, talk began a few years ago of a reincarnation focusing on the first three words in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" title, rather than the cartoony final one.
"It's borderline PG-13," Gray said. "This thing looks like 'Batman,'
like a $130 million live-action movie. That's the difference."
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"I really wanted to push this idea of them being teenagers, being a dysfunctional family," Munroe said. "That's the logic behind the design — making them a little leaner, more like teenagers, but at the same time using state-of-the-art CGI muscle systems and popping veins.
All of these things are us saying, 'Let's create this sense of believable reality.' This reinvigorates the franchise in a great way."
Although the new flick won't contradict any of the previous cartoons or movies, it will pick up the heroes in a half shell several years after they've walked away, à la "Superman Returns." "The family is split apart," Gray explained. "Leo is down in the jungles to get better ninja skills. Mikey and Donny have this side business they do to make ends meet. And Ralph is [a superhero called] the Night Watcher."
The four are reunited after they uncover a megalomaniacal plot by a baddie who might ring a bell with audiences.
"The villain is a gentleman by the name of Max Winters, kind of a Donald Trump character who owns everything in New York," Gray said. "In ancient South America he was a conqueror, and in order to conquer many of the lands, he made a pact with the devil to open a port and unleash these monsters. They killed not only the people he was trying to defeat but his own people, too. He was condemned forever to suffer for this, and [the new movie] has to do with the alignment of stars to reopen the portal.
"[The monsters] happen to be coming back to this particular part of New York after being dormant," he continued. "As the stars align, these things are coming back to life and he's got to be able to get them back in the portal and seal it off forever, and then he will obtain immortality."
Munroe and Gray are currently negotiating with name actors to play the characters on both sides of the "Turtles" battle, including plucky lab assistant April O'Neil and vigilante Casey Jones.
Both filmmakers insist, however, that the Turtles' voices will ring familiar. "The four turtles are not celebrity-driven voices," Gray explained, saying that vocal professionals have been hired to recapture them. "When you hear Leonardo, you hear Leonardo. You don't hear Ashton Kutcher doing Leonardo."
One fondly remembered cult figure was cast as the voice of the Turtles'
Zen-like mutant rat master. "Splinter is being voiced by Mako from 'Conan the Barbarian' and 'Samurai Jack,' " he said of the Oscar-nominated actor (1966's "The Sand Pebbles") who passed away recently, just weeks after finishing his voiceover work. "His voice stuff is phenomenal. The second we put him behind the mic, he just became Splinter."
Most of the characters will be darker and stronger than in the live-action films of the '90s, but Munroe was quick to assure fans that the Turtles' affinity for pizza and the word "cowabunga" isn't going anywhere.
"There will be both," the director confirmed. "Mikey actually gets dressed up as a children's-party mascot called Cowabunga Cow. He goes to birthday parties and entertains kids and gets beaten up by Nerf Nunchucks and stuff like that. And there will be pizza, not a lot like in the past, but there's a nod to it. You can't ignore it, like all of a sudden they don't like pizza."
So prepare to meet the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on March 30 — with slightly less pizza, and a lot less cheese.
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