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Upgraded turtles have style, lack substance

In "TMNT," the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reunite to battle immortal stone warriors who are trying to destroy the world. (WARNER BROS. PICTURES)

Kids too young to remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon when it was upon us in the early 1990s probably won't appreciate the fully computer-generated upgrade. But "TMNT" is made for them -- and nostalgic stoners. (The filmmakers have struck while the iron is cold.)

The movie is a serviceable way to pass the time: Kids will cheer the bright colors and funny new words ("Kowabunga!"). And they will probably have missed the cartoon series and the three rubbery live-action movies dedicated to it. So it will come as news.

Laurence Fishburne's holy baritone fills them in during the movie's opening sequences. Turtles named after Renaissance painters were radioactively turned super-reptilian in the sewers of New York and started fighting crime. Having done away with their archenemy Shredder (see live-action film number two), they've broken up and are pursuing new interests. Donatello (voiced by Mitchell Whitfield ) does tech support. Michelangelo (Mikey Kelly ) works the kiddie-party circuit. Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor ), the group's leader, lives in South America. And Raphael (Nolan North ) cruises the streets in armor as a vigilante. The group apparently is finished.

But a technocrat (Patrick Stewart ) is threatening to take over the world with a bunch of immortal warriors made of stone. According to an ancient myth, for complete dominion, he needs to catch one more Pokémon -- I mean warrior. Can the archeologist April (Sarah Michelle Gellar ), her crime-fighting boyfriend Casey (Chris Evans ), and the wise rat mentor Splinter (Mako ) help the turtles get their act together in time? And exactly whose side is Shredder's niece (Ziyi Zhang ) on?

The animators and designers of "TMNT" create a big city with cool verisimilitude. The buildings shimmer as they scrape the sky, and you can practically smell the sewers' fetid air. The turtles' faces have a readable range of expression (although Michelangelo just looks stoned the whole picture). This is an impressive achievement for characters with virtually no lips and whose eyes almost reach the sides of their heads.

The men doing the turtles' voices bring the heroes to life, but the only truly memorable one is the brooding, chronically bitter Raphael, whom I imagine Michael Chiklis playing in a live-action version (that's not a recommendation). He sounds like he actually might have been toxically born and bre d in the gutters of New York City -- Brooklyn, to be exact. The writers have taken care to give him emotional depth and a dark worldview that other loner-misfit superheroes, like Batman and Wolverine , might appreciate. It's scary to ponder the better movie "TMNT" might have been if that kind of inspiration had been equally spread.

But all this care serves an underwhelming end: The movie still looks like a video game, and that synthetic tone characterizes all the action. The camera frequently rotates around a lot of the fights, creating the impression that the writer and director Kevin Munroe did most of his work using a control pad. (It's worth mentioning that the humans, with their stiff movements and rigid reactions, are like gaming avatars with rifle butts for chins.)

That attention to physical detail is undercut by a story that the filmmakers appear to have presumed kids wouldn't really care about. It's true, they'll want action. But by any means necessary?

The major battle sequence comes out of nowhere, and I don't mean it comes too soon (it doesn't) but it just crashes on top of the movie, signaling that it's almost time to go home. All the energy of this plot is geared toward some kind of showdown, but that it feels anticlimactic underscores how flat this movie is. The battle is purely the result of commercial will -- these things usually are -- but it's rare that you can feel a movie's obligation to give the kids what their parents paid for.

"TMNT" is a junk-food pastry. The plot is the wrapper. The action is the oily sponge cake. And the message -- family, family, family -- is the processed cream filling. The production logo at the beginning of this movie reads Warner Bros., but I wouldn't have batted an eyelash if it had said Hostess.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to