T to the M to the N and the T

As I told Brown this morning, I recently got the opportunity to see a fascinating documentary about adolescent testudines with genetic abnormalities last night. They had received training in the martial arts, with very interesting results. I then proceeded to say the same thing to Nathan, and then to post it here--once you've uttered something as witty as that, why it's practically a crime not to repeat it again and again.

At any rate, this movie was quite interesting for three reasons, primarily.

Reason one: Alcohol. I'd just finished cleaning up the reception for Josep Call's Theory of Mind talk, and couldn't bring myself to throw away the rest of the wine. As a result, I was dead drunk* throughout.

Reason two: The TMNT franchise was a large part of my childhood. Not because I particular enjoyed the books, cartoons, movies, video games, posters, or other promotional items (although I did like the original Eastman & Laird comics fairly well) but simply because such a pop-culture juggernaut was a part of everyone's childhood, if they were born in the late 70's in America. And so I was watching this movie... and it was making references to this huge part of my childhood pop culture. It struck me that for all the folks who were 13 in 1970, this is how they feel when they first see a young hipster with a "Partridge Family" t-shirt...

When the cartoon turtles said, "Cowabunga" in 1990, it wasn't like they were tapping into a popular zeitgeist--no one really said that. However, listening to them say it today, in this movie, was entirely different. Still no one ever says "cowabunga" in real life, but this movie was making a nostalgic reference to a time when mass media characters used to say it. Totally creeped me out. Made me realize that for kids who are younger than I am, mirror shades and black leather kung-fu probably seem dated, and then in another ten years there might be a Matrix nostalgia movie... Or is that not comparable to the venerable turtle ninja, in terms of mass pop culture saturation? I suppose there will be retro-Pokemon to deal with in the coming decade...

Reason three: stylistically, the movie was extremely interesting. All of the non-organic stuff in the movie was hyper-realistic. If the camera panned across buildings, puddles, sewers, &c... Well, I believe that humans are not capable of determining whether the were CG or filmed objects out in the world. The human figures, on the other hand, were highly stylized, in a style that I didn't especially like and have difficulty describing. They seemed very doll-like, somehow. Not only were the proportions incorrect (not enough neck or ankle to support them) but they also seemed a little soft.

In between the two extremes were the titular turtles. On the one hand, they were as stylized as the humans--they maintained the exact (to my inexpert eye) details from the original comics. Whether this was out of respect for Eastman and Laird, or out of respect for years of brand identity marketing I cannot say, but they looked like Ninja Turtles™ and not at all like turtle turtles. On the other hand, given that the shape looked unnatural, the turtles themselves were rendered in the same hyper-realistic way that the rest of the most was, with some fantastic water effects as the stood in the rain, &c. I'm certainly not in that field (although my dissertation project as an undergrad was in 3D graphics programming) but to me these were some of the best organic characters I've ever seen. Monsters Inc. was the first movie to even try to deal with realistic-looking organic main characters (as opposed the easy-to-render stuff like plastic toys or ants) and even then they made them look as alien as they could, and covered one of them in (beautiful) fur. These turtles, though, really looked great. What's more, they've come an awfully long way in terms of the movement--computer generated motion has always been just a little too jerky, not quite right. There were still quite a few scenes in which I noticed this (any fast-paced fight scene, for example) but for the most part they moved extremely naturally. I think*. So it was quite surreal to be watching a movie that could have been filmed in real-life New York (or maybe a metropolis with different buildings but the same character) that was full of cartoon humans and extremely realistic mutant turtle warriors.

The other thing that I just loved about the graphic design were the ninjas. Not the heroic ones, but the evil Foot Clan ninja army. Ninja armies almost never work for me visually. I can buy a single ninja--trained to deadly perfection, cloaked in shadow, &c. &c. Maybe four ninjas, even, but there's just something about seeing rows and rows of hooded fellows, all trained to perfection and all cloaked in shadow that breaks character. Ninjas are about subtle knives in the dark, but armies can't help but read "brute force" to me. Most armies (even if the uniform incorporates a black hood) inevitably bring to mind the Second Crusade, or Napoleon's endless ranks of soldiers marching in perfect formation, even as their ranks are decimated by cannon. This is not very subtle, not very ninjitsuitical.

These ninjas, though, were totally believable--they had a way of standing perfectly still and ready behind their leader, who would make quick little gestures with her hand, at which point hundreds of ninjas would dash of with incredible speed in the direction that she pointed. What I loved was that they looked so much like sparrows--as they dashed off, they practically wheeled!

The voice talent was decent, though for once Patrick Stewart was overshadowed. I'd not heard of Mako before, but apparently he was a huge deal. Certainly his acting in this movie was great, very authoritative and even somewhat soulful, for a giant clichéd mentor-rat. He died at the tail end of production, and the movie is dedicated to him. It's certainly not the best movie to finish up with (apparently Olivier died after filming a cinematic version of Britten's War Requiem) but it's almost certainly better than the fate of poor Raul Julia.

*Actually, I had a two-hour wait before the showing, so I ordered a chocolate martini at the movie theater bar. The bartender told me that it was cash only, but the ATM told me I had $0 in cash, as did the other two that I tried. When I returned she was kind enough to let me have the (already poured) martini anyway. I gave her my last dollar as a tip, and was quite happy with the world.