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A digital mutation for Turtles

The teenage mutant ninjas go CGI and become `more dignified' in their fourth film.

March 19, 2007|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

There's no "Cowabunga" this time around.

That Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rallying cry and the rapid-fire one-liners have fallen by the wayside as the still-lean, still-green, nunchaku-wielding, pizza-eating terrapins return Friday for their fourth film installment. "We just wanted to present them in a more dignified light and make the movie an homage to the comics that spawned the Turtles," says "TMNT" director Kevin Munroe.

Instead of employing martial arts stuntmen in bulky prosthetics, "TMNT" is rendered completely in CGI. And by drawing on the talents of some 370 animators from two continents, Munroe has created a digital New York City in which talking turtles bounding across rooftops and skateboarding through sewers look perfectly in place.

The new Turtles movie comes hot on the heels of two recent comic-book-based blockbusters, "300" and "Ghost Rider." Whether "TMNT" can replicate such success, however, depends on whether fans still connect with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.

By bringing the Turtles back to their roots, Munroe, a self-professed comic-book geek and Turtles fan (he owns the first "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" comic from 1984), hopes to appease the current generation of fans as well as those who grew up reading the comic books.

"The movie is about family," says Munroe, who served double duty as writer. "Leonardo, who has been off training on his own for a year, comes back to a family that has drifted apart and is charged by their father, Master Splinter, with bringing them back together."

Bat-wielding vigilante Casey Jones (voiced by Chris Evans) is back, as is longtime Turtles ally April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Gone, however, is the Turtles' erstwhile nemesis Shredder; in his place is tech industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart).

In addition to the Turtles, the other "star" of the movie is the special effects, the work of upstart Imagi Animation Studios.

The relatively unknown Hong Kong company, whose brief resume includes producing animation for the short-lived DreamWorks TV series "Father of the Pride," seems like an odd choice to rejuvenate the Turtles, a property that has generated $6 billion in revenue worldwide.

But the president and chief executive of its U.S. office is Thomas Gray, who was the linchpin for the first three Turtles movies.

Until 1998, Gray was head of production for Hong Kong's Golden Harvest, which is best known for producing most of the Jackie Chan films. It was there that he was approached about making a film based on a comic book featuring human-sized talking turtles named after Renaissance artists.

Gray's visceral response: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

At the time, the Turtles, who began life as an obscure independent comic book, were just beginning to break into the mainstream. And after a little coaxing, Gray began to see the upside. "We'll put four of Jackie Chan's stunt guys in suits, make the movie for $3 million and get our money back."

But Gray had a difficult time landing a domestic deal for the movie, whose budget had ballooned to $11 million. "Every studio passed on the film -- sometimes twice." Gray finally convinced New Line Cinema to take a chance. The film opened with a $25-million weekend on its way to a final box-office tally of $135 million, making it one of the highest-grossing independent films in history.

Two more movies were rushed to the market, each more expensive and less profitable than its predecessor. By the time the third film was released in 1993 to a gross of just $42 million domestically, it seemed the franchise had run its course.

Fast forward 10 years. After joining Imagi's U.S. studio, Gray was again approached about doing a Turtles movie, this time by Imagi founder Francis Kao.

Although the front end -- production design, character design and story-boarding -- and the back end of "TMNT" were done in the U.S., the long, laborious middle part was produced in Hong Kong.

"We were able to bring the film in at $34 million," Gray said. (By contrast, the budget for Pixar's "Cars," which was created entirely in-house, is estimated at $120 million.)

Another cost-cutting measure involved Imagi's choice of directors: Gray ultimately decided to give 34-year-old Munroe his first shot at directing a feature film.

"They ran out of money, so that got me instead of John Woo," jokes Munroe, referring to early trade reports tying Woo to the Turtles.

Although the movie will certainly appeal to fans watching the current Turtles animated series, the film was definitely made with an eye toward the first generation of Turtles fans, which is why Gray was so surprised when many of the studios that passed on the Turtles the first time around did so again.

Film producer Harvey Weinstein, though, was instantly smitten. "I didn't have any reservations about the movie, none," says Weinstein, who is distributing the movie along with Warner Bros. "It just felt right."

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