Rise of the TMNT: The Movie Is an Exhilarating Showing for One of the Ninja Turtles’ Best Incarnations

Rise of the TMNT: The Movie Is an Exhilarating Showing for One of the Ninja Turtles’ Best Incarnations
Image: Netflix

When Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began airing in 2018, longtime shellheads were wary — it was a show that at first largely traded goofy, short-form teen antics for serious stories, a bold design aesthetic, and a radical re-interpretation of the franchise’s usual lore, and it shook up the series in a big way. Four years on, and with Rise potentially at its end with the long-awaited release of its new movie next week, the series has proven that good things really do come to those who wait.

Set after the conclusion of Rise’s second season — where the Turtles came together to, well, rise up as the heroes of the Hamato Clan with their father Splinter (Eric Bauza) to defeat the demonic beast Shredder — Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie opens not with the heroes in a half-shell we know from Rise itself, but in an apocalyptic future where they, and the rest of New York City, have been decimated by an alien invasion of parasitic beings known as the Krang. Trusting the future by going into the past to stop the Krang’s arrival in the first place, older iterations of Leonardo (Ben Schwartz) and Michaelangelo (Brandon Mychal Smith) thrust a young Casey Jones (Haley Joel Osment) back into contemporary New York with one simple mission: find the Turtles he knows as legendary, battle-hardened senseis on the frontline of an apocalyptic war before they ever became those legends, and convince them to help him stop the Krang from showing up in the first place.

Screenshot: NetflixScreenshot: Netflix

Naturally, there would be no movie if Casey succeeded, so when he finds the younger versions of his masters alongside their brothers Donatello (Josh Brener) and Raphael (Omar Benson Miller), as well as their best friend April O’Neill (Kat Graham) — still grappling with their transition from goofy would-be-ninjas to the heroes of the Hamato Clan — things begin to go a bit pear-shaped, as expectation meets reality and neither side is too eager to listen to the other… leading to the Krang to make their presence known, and setting the stage for an epic battle with the fate of New York and the world at the heart of it.

Despite acting as a potential finale to Rise as an ongoing iteration of the Ninja Turtles franchise — the series’ second season concluded in 2020, and Paramount has made clear it has big plans for new versions of the TMNT on streaming and on the big screenThe Movie stands alone as a classic adventure that fans of any iteration of the Ninja Turtles can enjoy. All the hallmarks are there — beloved mainstay support characters like Casey, who gets a ton to do in the movie, alongside Splinter and April; the Krangs as an iconic TMNT villain only next to Splinter in recognition; the conflict and camaraderie between the four brothers — and the film leans on these areas enough that even if you didn’t yet check out Rise, you could see The Movie and have a ton of fun. And if you’re already a Rise fan, emotional beats and touches reward you for having stuck with the series to see this as the next, and potentially final, step in this version of the team’s journey as heroes — even if, both to its strength and detriment, it’s kind of a bummer that some of Rise’s unique cast of characters don’t get to make a comeback for it too.

Screenshot: NetflixScreenshot: Netflix

That focus on the core elements of Rise and TMNT alike is aided greatly by a few other things The Movie gets to leave behind leaping from 11-minute TV shorts to an 85-minute movie. The first is simply breadth and scope: Rise even at its most story driven was a fast-paced, kinetic series, and a movie run time gives it a chance to better balance both its action (of which there is plenty) and its character work, giving the four leads the chance to feel like more nuanced, fleshed out characters along the way. The second is in a leap to Netflix, The Movie is allowed a tone with much more of an edge than the show had on Nick: not only is the gravity of the situation much more dire and treated as such by the usually light-hearted-in-the-face-of-danger Rise crew, it’s rendered in a surprisingly dark tone too. The Krang — here a trio of alien beings rather than the individual specific character in most TMNT iterations — as a threat really help The Movie push this darker undercurrent, and are treated as a seriously fearsome foe that acts as a perfect foil to the Rise brothers and their usual tone.

This sense of scale is, of course, balanced with some wonderfully over the top action sequences. By the time of The Movie, the Rise team is well and truly a battle-tested and trained squad, and it’s great to see them at the top of their game, even as they’re challenged by the Krangs’ alien invasion. The confidence of the brothers reflects the confidence of Rise’s animation team, and it shows through the movie with action that is crisp and stylishly framed, both in the smallest details to the grandest scale moments of city-destroying sci-fi mania. It’s also beautiful, to boot: even beyond the usual trope that an animated TV show getting a movie budget means that everyone suddenly has some really nice shadow, The Movie is Rise’s TV aesthetic amplified in scale just as the story is. Packed with neon glows and a rainbow of colourful shades, it’s a delightful sensory explosion at its best, pushing the show’s aesthetic ideas with the support and budget they’ve always craved.

Image: NetflixImage: Netflix

This would all matter much less, however, if The Movie wasn’t grounded in a good heart. But it is, thanks to a touching tale that focuses on the relationship between Raphael and Leonardo — their traditional roles swapped in Rise so that quick-tempered Raph is the leader, rather than the too-cool-for-school Leo — as they navigate their evolving relationship as both teammates and brothers when the latter is tasked with ascending as the team’s new leader. It’s a classic TMNT story of brotherly misunderstanding and sibling conflict — hiding the true depth of just how much they care for each other — and how they come to put that aside and unite as a family to save the day.

The only slight downside is that the focus on Raph and Leo leaves Mikey and Donnie a little sidelined to exist as the the film’s outlet for comic relief (that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Rise’s funniest brothers, and their partnership in The Movie is a welcome respite from the grave scenario at times). But even then, anchoring its wild action in this touching story of brotherly bonds lets Rise feel like it can evolve to the thing it always wanted to be as a new generation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle storytelling: a big, stylish action story that swings for the fences, but one that has the time to dig deep into its heroes and celebrate the relationships that make them all tick.

Screenshot: Netflix, APScreenshot: Netflix, AP

In all, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie both stands alone as one of the most exciting, hyperactive animated movies of the year, and as a potential and incredibly fitting farewell to Rise as an iteration of New York’s finest reptilian role models. With great style, great moves, and an awful lot of heart, it’s an example of what Rise could be at its greatest, unrestrained by its usual format and scope — and perhaps that’s more than worth convincing a TMNT holdout or two that it’s always been worth the time to check out.

Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie begins streaming on Netflix August 5.

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