Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Return: More Action, Fewer Catchphrases

Filmmakers say March 23's 'TMNT' is about 'family coming back together again' to battle 13 monsters.

SHERMAN OAKS, California — A few days before Christmas, an endless supply of harried shoppers buzzed around the Sherman Oaks Galleria mall with their heads down and their eyes on the last-minute prizes they were hoping to grab. They never knew that just a few hundred feet above them, grown men were obsessing over the kung-fu skills of mutant reptiles.

“Basically, the director, the writer, the storyboards and the animatics [are] all done here,” producer Thomas Gray said in a nondescript conference room that could easily be mistaken for the one from “The Office,” while giving a most unusual “set visit” just months before his “TMNT” will relaunch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (see “New Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Flick: Slightly Less Pizza, A Lot Less Cheese” ). “[Every night] we ship it all off to Hong Kong, where we have 450 animators who work on it overnight, and they send it back here by T3 line. They’re 14 hours ahead of us. We come in the next morning, and it’s all done — it’s an amazing process.”

In the middle of rows of soulless cubicles, fax machines and Aeron chairs sat Gray, director Kevin Munroe and a handful of talented artists working long hours on “TMNT” (as well as the crew’s 2008 remake of the classic Japanese anime show “Gatchaman”). Their stations were covered with dark, moody sketches of sewers, monsters, muscle-bound turtles and apocalyptic visions of New York. But the most noticeable thing was the lack of catchphrase-coining goofiness that permeated the previous three live-action movies.

“It’s less cowabunga,” grinned Munroe, a shaggy-haired man with a wide smile and a background in the video game business. “[’TMNT’] is more a reflection of where we are in the world today. It’s a harder world; a grittier world.”

“The story is that there are 13 monsters released on the world because of a curse released 3,000 years ago,” explained the grandfatherly Gray, as a stressed-out family of shoppers hustled past in the window behind him. “Those monsters are on the loose in New York City, and [new villain] Max Winters has to find a way to get them all back in — they have to be rounded up by Winters and the Foot Clan. They round up the monsters, put them back in this centrifuge that, once the stars are aligned, will zap them back into eternity. They’re the classic monsters throughout history, the little Jersey Devil, a Loch Ness monster, and all that is our riff on classic monster movies. [There’s also a] Bigfoot, but they’re composites more than anything else.”

“It’s a story picking up where the other three movies left off,” added Munroe, a lifelong fan of the heroes in a half shell. “Now the family is in turmoil and they’re all apart. Leonardo is training out in the world, and Raphael is taking the law into his own hands, and the other two brothers are trying to support the family with dead-end jobs. The movie is about the family coming back together again.”

To prove that this is a long way from the days of Corey Feldman’s voice being dubbed onto a green-latex-clad Japanese stuntman, Munroe and Gray unveiled an early Christmas present of their own: Roughly 20 minutes of fast-moving, eye-popping footage. It’s dark, it’s funny and it seems a bit like a “Shrek” action movie directed by Christopher Nolan.

Fast-moving clips show Winters (voiced by Patrick Stewart) announcing his plans for world domination, Casey Jones (Chris Evans) sporting his signature hockey mask while leaping from rooftop to rooftop, April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar seeming pluckier than ever) and Master Splinter (Mako, in his posthumous final performance) chastising his adopted turtles. The three most memorable scenes, however, were three sequences that could be straight out of the next Will Smith summer blockbuster.

“The diner sequence, as we call it, has Raphael dressed as the Night Watcher — his Batman-esque alter ego that has him going out as a vigilante at night and taking justice into his own hands,” Munroe explained. The humorous scene has Raph responding to a distress call from a cook (voiced by Kevin Smith) who is being harassed by the tiny Jersey Devil monster (think “Lilo & Stitch”), who’s more lethal than he looks. “[Raphael] goes out back into the kitchen thinking he’s going to face an 8-foot-tall monster. He opens up a freezer door and instead finds a 2-and-a-half-foot lobster-looking creature which proceeds to just kick the tar out of him!”

Another breakout moment — Munroe already admitted it’ll be in the video game — is a long, uninterrupted shot of Michelangelo skateboarding through the impossibly complex sewer route he navigates to get home. “The way that’s done in [CGI] is spectacular, and if we have a really driving musical score there, I think that scene will stand out as one of the most popular,” Gray beamed.

“I always felt that, with the other incarnations of the Turtles’ lair, if you made a wrong turn off a subway platform you just might land in their living room,” Munroe laughed. “That was always budgetary-based. Being CGI, we thought we’d make it feel like you had to travel for a mile and a half just to get down to the sewer. The idea was to incorporate the character and have Mikey skateboarding all the way down, dodging subway cars, ducking under bridges and wrapping around poles.”

The third breakout moment, however, will undoubtedly be the pepperoni on the pizza for Turtles fans: A John Woo-meets-“Kill Bill” rooftop showdown between two angry brothers. “The one on the rooftop where Leo and Raph really duke it out, this is gonna be a very moving scene,” insisted Gray, who has owned the rights to the Turtles since 1987. “It’s done in the rain — it looks like the quintessential Frank Miller moment — and it’s very moving because we’ve never seen the two brothers really angry at each other, and you don’t know to what extent they’ll carry forth.”

“It was a little nerve-racking bringing it up to Peter Laird, one of the creators of the Turtles, but he was all for it,” Munroe said of the turtle-on-turtle action scene. “He said as long as it came from the story development, and didn’t feel tacked-on, it was OK. So it comes from a good place, a source of tension between the brothers. We get to witness who would win if Leo and Raph did fight — so let the polling begin online.”

After the interview, Gray and Munroe hit the “send” button, and hundreds of Turtle images were transported to the team of animators feverishly preparing to raise shell in time for the film’s March 23 release. Then they turned off the lights and headed out the front door of their office building, navigating their way through a throng of embittered shoppers.

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