Since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their comic book debut back in 1984, there have been several incarnations of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's team of Foot Clan-fighting mutants. Whether it was in the pages of comics, (mostly) animated adventures on TV or action-packed stories on the big screen, each new version of the Heroes in a Half Shell strived to do something new with the popular franchise while keeping the most important elements intact. Paramount's latest live-action incarnation of Master Splinter's team -- 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and 2016's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows -- delivered decent popcorn entertainment, but it wasn't a home run for the well-known franchise. Now, Paramount is rebooting the iconic franchise and there are a few simple ways to put the lovable team back on the right track.
First and foremost, respect the source material's simple character designs. While the latest live-action version of the franchise was likely made by people who are passionate about the Heroes in a Half Shell, there were several missteps in the execution of updating the franchise and trying to make it feel different from previous versions. When it comes to character designs, sometimes less can be more. The 2014 and 2016 movies went in a new direction by giving each turtle a very crowded design to showcase their unique personalities. It was certainly ambitious, but it felt too cluttered. Plus, the "mutant" part of these stealthy characters was embraced and the four mutant brothers were turned into large and powerful heroes, despite the original versions actually being smaller than ordinary humans. This immediately drew comparisons to characters like Shrek and Hulk, which really shouldn't happen with these lovable characters.
When compared to the original animated designs or even the animated designs from the 2012 show, it's crystal clear that respecting the classic design from the comics while only making small changes is a tried and true approach. Keep the designs simple and familiar, while staying true to the characters. There's no need to go in a drastically new direction if you're trying to win over older fans while also creating new ones with a blockbuster movie. The first live-action movie from 1990 proved that the classic look can hold up on the big screen, even when using practical costumes instead of advanced motion capture.
Secondly, respect the source material's handling of the characters. The latest movies stayed true to the team's personalities -- Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude and Michelangelo is a party dude. The personalities, team dynamic and the importance of family were spot-on in Paramount's recent TMNT movies. The handling of other characters -- like Shredder and Casey Jones -- didn't work as well. Casey Jones is an incredibly straightforward character, yet Out of the Shadows tried to give him a new path: Casey wanted to be a detective, not a vigilante. It simply felt off, especially when compared to the first live-action version of the brutal character. The handling of Shredder in the first film was so off -- the deadly martial artist wore a bulky armor that drew comparisons to Megatron -- that the sequel basically gave him a soft reboot. These characters aren't complex -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it, dudes.
They're called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the third step to getting the team back on the right track is by unleashing memorable action scenes -- they're the world's most fearsome fighting team, after all. When reflecting on the 1990 movie, who can forget Raphael's rooftop fight with Foot Clan ninjas, or the team battling Shredder on a rooftop? Fight choreography matters; otherwise, action sequences can become forgettable. The Ninja Turtles may be young and always learning, but they're formidable fighters, and that needs to be shown in an exciting and jaw-dropping way during melee sequences. Showing off a mastery of their weapons and hand-to-hand combat is a must.
The Ninja Turtles don't just strike hard, though -- they also fade into the night. Putting the mutant team's stealth capabilities front and center is critical. The 2014 and 2016 movies did focus on this, but making large and imposing mutants stealthy was a little jarring and was never as memorable as the first time the team saved April in the 1990 movie.
The movie needs to go in a familiar direction with the Ninja Turtles' designs and personalities, but it should go in a refreshing direction by offering a new antagonist. Shredder, Karai and the Foot Clan should have a presence in the new TMNT universe but have their story saved for a sequel (unless the new film is going to have fight choreography on par with The Raid, which would be a herculean feat). The reboot should finally capitalize on something that the other TMNT live-action movies have yet to properly unleash: Baxter Stockman. The character appeared in the latest movie, but the world has yet to see a live-action version of a mutated Baxter Stockman, or Stockman's signature creation: the Mousers. Introducing Baxter Stockman also means a comics-accurate version of April O'Neil could be used for the first time on the big screen. April was originally a computer programmer and Stockman's assistant, not a TV reporter.
If April (or Casey Jones) plays a role, she should not receive more screen time than Splinter's team. When fans eventually go to a movie theater and buy a ticket to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, it's pretty clear what most of them will want to see: the Heroes in a Half Shell. Leo, Raph, Mikey and Donnie should be the stars of the film, while human characters, like April and Casey, should be a part of their story, and not the other way around.
Only time will tell whether or not Paramount's untitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will be a step in the right direction for the franchise on the big screen. But, if Paramount gets the characters and action right, that should put the Ninja Turtles movies back on track, even if the overall plot is all kinds of silly.
The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film will be written by Andrew Dodge (Bad Words) and does not yet have a release date.