Hollywood turns out so many movies about superheroes or people who acquire superpowers. It’s probably just a coincidence that the two out this week are both about sets of siblings who have them. Neither film is a full-blown success, but The Last Mimzy is easily the better one.
It begins with the Wilder kids, nine-year-old Noah (Chris O’Neil) and six-year-old Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) discovering an intricate box on the beach near their parents’ summer cabin in Washington state. The thing springs open to reveal a bunch of odd objects, including some rocks that defy gravity when Emma spins them, and a blue shapeless thing whose purpose isn’t immediately clear. Even weirder are the ones that look the most ordinary: a seashell that gives Noah super-hearing and a stuffed rabbit that speaks to Emma via some electronic rumbles that only she can hear. It tells Emma that its name is Mimzy, and that it comes from the future with a warning.
In short order, Noah is doodling Tibetan mandalas in his notebook and using the structural principles of spider webs to design bridges, to the bewilderment of his parents (Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson) and his science teacher (Rainn Wilson). The revelation of the mandalas is particularly nice, as we first see the drawings reflected in the teacher’s glasses as he pages through Noah’s notebook. Director Robert Shaye — better known as a producer on the Nightmare on Elm Street movies — does admirable work capturing the kids’ uncanny talents emerging from the ordinariness of their everyday lives.
Too bad he’s sabotaged by his writers. The script is based on the 1943 short story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, a pen name for the husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Screenwriters Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder) and Toby Emmerich (Frequency) trade in the story’s chilling ending for a happy one where the kids don’t go anywhere. Not only does this betray the spirit of Padgett’s story, it doesn’t work on its own terms, either. Instead of a parable about how children’s discoveries of their talents tend to remove them from their parents, we’re left with a lot of laser lights and a hazy tale about the purity of a child’s love. For a movie that gets off to such a good start, this is a bad way to unravel.
The Last Mimzy at least doesn’t cook up a phony conflict between siblings, unlike the other superhero fantasy out this week. The latest cinematic adventure of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is officially titled TMNT, probably to avoid confusion with all the other titles about them in circulation. What started life as a comic-book series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird became a tv cartoon show in 1987, a live-action movie in 1990, a tv show again in 2003, and now a slick animated film. These pizza-loving radioactive superhero brothers have probably survived because of their unique skateboard-dudes-with-Eastern-philosophy personas and their wisecracking awareness that they are, like, the world’s only mutant ninja turtles, regardless of age bracket.
Maybe if the current movie had more of this, it would stand out. Its first mistake is assuming the audience’s familiarity with the whole Ninja Turtle mythos. Back in the 1980s I picked up the vague outlines of their story (as well as the tv show’s annoyingly repetitive theme song) and then forgot about them, so I found myself lost in the narrative’s gaps — Shredder’s dead? When did this happen? The bulky voiceover narration by Laurence Fishburne tries to fill in the older crowd, but I’m afraid only the Turtles’ younger fans are going to follow this easily.
This would matter less if the events onscreen were involving at all. Not so, though. The main plot revolves around Turtles’ leader Leonardo (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) returning from the exile imposed on him by spiritual advisor Splinter (voiced by Mako). While Michaelangelo and Donatello (voiced by Mikey Kelley and Mitchell Whitfield) welcome him back, Raphael (voiced by Nolan North) thinks Leo isn’t equipped to lead anymore. The friction between Leo and hot-headed Raph only yields up tired platitudes about family and teamwork. Meanwhile, the subplot with a 3,000-year-old warrior king disguised as a billionaire businessman (voiced by Patrick Stewart) trying to open a portal to another dimension comes out completely nonsensical.
The computer animation does look superb, as opposed to the hand-drawn look of both tv versions, and there’s some nice bits, like the well-executed action sequence with Raph trying to corral a tiny hellion of a monster in a restaurant kitchen. Still, neither these nor the panoply of celebrity guest voices (ranging from Kevin Smith to Zhang Ziyi) can fill in the story, personality, or vowels in the title that are all missing from TMNT. The Turtles may be heroes with a half-shell, but that’s no excuse for their movie being half-assed.