TMNT (2007) Review

TMNT – the strangely titled fourth feature film in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise – is kind of the odd duck in the series. It’s the only fully animated film in the entire TMNT franchise, was produced by the now-defunct Imagi Animation Studios, and is ambiguous as to whether or not it keeps continuity with the three live-action films of the 1990s (there are hints and Easter eggs that imply it does follow those films, with contradictory elements leaving that connection in question). TMNT often seems forgotten in the Ninja Turtles movie lineage – despite just recently becoming a decade old – which is both understandable and a shame.

This is understandable because, despite a genuine effort by Imagi Animation Studios, TMNT is largely forgettable in plot. But it’s a shame because, when it works, TMNT hints that a bright future may have been in store for animated Ninja Turtles films.

The story here is that, 3,000 years ago, a warlord named Yeotl discovered a portal to another dimension. The portal granted Yeotle immortality, but at a price: his four generals, whom he loved like brothers, were turned to stone, and thirteen immortal monsters were released from the portal, who proceeded to destroy his army.

Fast-forward to present day New York City, and Yeotl has taken up a new name, Max Winters (Patrick Stewart), a wealthy businessman seeking to undo his immortality, as he’s spent centuries tormented by what his actions did to his friends and his army.

To accomplish this, Winters needs to capture the thirteen monsters who escaped from the portal, and send them back through. There’s an impending alignment of the planets that will allow him to reopen the portal to send the monsters back. It’s…complicated.

Anyway, Winters has hired April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) – who now owns a company that locates relics for collectors – to retrieve four statues for him; with these statues being his petrified generals from the past. Meanwhile, Winters has also secretly recruited the remnants of the Foot Clan, now lead by the mysterious Karai (Zhang Ziyi), to retrieve the monsters.

All the while, the Ninja Turtles have gone their separate ways in life: Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) has been sent to South America as some kind of vaguely detailed training, where he stops bandits and saves villages. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is now an IT operator. Michelangelo (Michael Kelly) is an entertainer at children’s parties (“Cowabunga Carl”). And Raphael (Nolan North) stalks the streets of New York at night as the vigilante “the Nightwatcher.

As you might suspect, the Turtles become involved with all the goings-on with Max Winters’ scheme, though they also have to deal with familial issues, as their separate paths have caused a divide in their brotherhood.

Geez, you think that’s enough build-up?

There are two main issues with the plot: The first, as you’ve probably guessed, is that it’s just too convoluted. There are just too many characters and elements at work for the short running time to know what to do with. In fact, there’s so much going on between the dilemma between the Turtles and Max Winters’ plot, that they barely cross paths until the third act, almost making things feel like two different movies collided with each other.

The other problem is that, because there’s so much going on and not enough time for it all, a number of elements feel underdeveloped or poorly thought-out.

One of the big lingering questions is why the thirteen immortal monsters are all suddenly showing up at once in New York City. Perhaps it has something to do with the planets aligning, but that’s never explicitly said. Just what were these monsters doing for three-thousand years? Another question arrises once Winters reanimates his stone generals. At first they seem like mindless zombies who follow Winters’ orders, in which case it makes sense that he’s still trying to break the curse on them. But later it’s revealed that they can indeed think independently. So does Winters really need to proceed with his plan, seeing as he now has his lost friends, albeit they are now made of stone instead of flesh and blood? Hey, if I waited three-thousand years to see my friends again, I wouldn’t mind too much if they just so happened to be made of stone. Take what you can get.

Okay, so the plot is gobbledygook. That seems to be par for the course with Ninja Turtles films. But TMNT is considerably more serious in tone than the 90s live-action movies, so the nonsense of the plot rings all the louder.

With all of this said, TMNT still has some positives going for it. Though the animation is certainly not on par with the animated films from bigger studios like Disney and Pixar of the time, it still boasts a stylized look that worked for the material. The voice acting is also pretty solid; and includes Captain America himself, Chris Evans, as Casey Jones, and the late Mako Iwamatsu as Master Splinter in his last film role.

On top of that, the action scenes are well made, with a duel between Leonardo and Raphael being a particular highlight. Though maybe the film should have cut back the number of monsters, since most of them are dealt with via montage, and only a few allow for any full-on fight scenes.

TMNT may not have been the full-blown franchise revival it was hoping to be (as evidenced by the fact that it never got a sequel, and another live-action reboot happened seven years later), but it has enough Ninja Turtle-ness that may make it worth a look for fans (the action scenes are an improvement over the 90s films, and it’s fun to see the Easter eggs that allude to the original trilogy). And unlike Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the original villains here at least feel like the fit in with the franchise.

For fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TMNT can provide some fun. But its murky plot certainly holds it back as a movie in its own right, and unlike the first two 90s films, it lacks the campiness to make it a guilty pleasure.

If nothing else, TMNT is an interesting piece of Turtles history.

 

5.5

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993) Review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III has got to be one of the strangest sequels ever made. Now, it’s rare for a third entry in a franchise to live up to its predecessors (which is very much the case here), because by the time a series reaches its third entry, the studios are usually just trying to cash-in on the name.

What makes TMNTIII such an anomaly is that it takes this to a whole new level. It really is cashing in on the franchise name alone. Aside from the main characters being the four titular turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, and the presence of Master Splinter, April O’Neil (Paige Turco) and a returning Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), the film has virtually nothing to do with the franchise on which it’s based.

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, April O’Neil brings gifts to her mutant friends that she found in an antique shop. One such item is an ancient Japanese scepter, which April plans on giving to Splinter. As it turns out, this scepter is of the magical, time-traveling variety.

The scepter exists in two different time frames, one in the present, and one in ancient Japan. When someone from both eras touches the scepter at the same time, they switch places (and, for some reason, their clothes as well). Just as April is about to give Splinter his gift, she trades places with a Japanese prince named Kenshin (Henry Hayashi).

Naturally, the Ninja Turtles need to go back in time and retrieve April, and end up swapping places with the honor guard of Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono), Kenshin’s father. To make sure the time travelers don’t cause too much trouble for Master Splinter, the turtles bring in Casey Jones to help their sensei.

Meanwhile, in ancient Japan, the turtles get involved in a scuffle between Lord Norinaga’s forces – who are being influenced by a western weapons trader named Walker (Stuart Wilson) – and a local village in danger of being destroyed by Norinaga’s war. All the while, April meets up with a distant ancestor of Casey Jones, who just so happens to be in Japan.

Truth be told, it actually has more of a plot (or, at the very least, the setup of one) than the previous two films. But that’s as far as any compliments can go.

The first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies weren’t particularly good, but they are harmless fun and, if you’re a TMNT fan, they definitely feel like TMNT movies. The same cannot be said for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.

For starters, there are the visuals. Although they weren’t the best practical effects of their day, the costumes and puppets provided by the Jim Henson Company in the first two movies still look impressive. TMNTIII can even boast that, as the new costumes and puppets, no longer provided by the Jim Henson Company, are a marked downgrade in quality. The Ninja Turtles look way too goofy, and the puppet for Master Splinter is clearly unfinished (we only ever see his top half this time). It’s a visual mess.

Now let’s look at the villain scenario. Walker and Norinaga are as stock and generic as villains get, and I honestly can’t describe them any deeper than one’s a Japanese lord, and the other is a British weapons trader who is often accompanied by a caged bird, because there is nothing deeper to describe.

Even as a kid, I couldn’t wrap my head around how the mutated Super Shredder didn’t survive the climax of the second film, considering he survived much worse as regular Shredder in the first film. But even if Shredder didn’t return, there were no shortage of villains in the TMNT franchise to draw from. At the very least, they could have come up with original villains who actually fit into the nature of the series (like Tokka and Rahzar in the second movie).

Of course, this all goes back to the setting of the film. While time traveling to ancient Japan seems like something the Ninja Turtles would do, the lack of appropriate characters for the franchise really makes the setting a waste. It really is just the Turtles and April in ancient Japan, with nothing to speak of that even remotely resembles the look and feel of the franchise.

The action scenes have also been dumbed down far below even the second movie (in which the Turtles never used their weapons). Here, the fight scenes are just stupid gags (the Turtles enjoy giving “wet willies” to their opponents). There’s no seriousness to them.

Worst of all are the Ninja Turtles themselves. Sure, the Ninja Turtles have always made cheesy jokes and one-liners, but here it’s taken to absolutely ridiculous levels. The Turtles just never shut up, and are constantly making stupid jokes and references that make no contextual sense. And they never let up.

Not only are the constant barrages of unfunny jokes annoying, but the fact that all of the Turtles are constantly cracking them means that all four Turtles become indistinguishable, with none of their individual personalities ever on display.

Are there any good aspects to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III? Well, some of the antics between Casey Jones and the temporally displaced honor guards can be kind of funny. I especially like when the honor guards discover television. And I suppose the friendship between Raphael and a small Japanese boy is kind of cute. That’s about it.

The first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies are by no means classics, but if you grew up with the franchise, or are currently growing up with the franchise, they provide plenty of fan service and nostalgia. They actually feel like Ninja Turtles movies, and silly as they may be, they can provide some fun for fans.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III can’t even boast any of that. The dialogue is nothing short of obnoxious, the practical effects look notably worse than the previous films, the villains are nonentities, and the whole thing lacks anything that resembles the franchise other than the Turtles themselves. Even as a kid I didn’t enjoy this movie because of how far removed it was from the source material I loved so much in my younger days.

The first two TMNT features are guilty pleasures. TMNTIII, however, is just a curious, nostalgic oddity.

3.0

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) Review

Although today’s movie scene gets a lot of flak for an over-reliance on sequels, the 1990s were no better. In fact, they may have even have been more guilty, seeing as it isn’t totally unheard of for a sequel to be better than the original these days, whereas 90s sequels were seldom anything more than cash-ins.

This sadly applies to one of my favorite movies from my childhood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Although I must also admit that TMNTII is something of a guilty pleasure. It’s even more campy and goofy than the original, but it’s also very much a Ninja Turtle movie, maybe even more so than the first. It’s not a good movie, but if you’re a fan of the franchise, young or old, it is what it is.

As a kid, I liked the second Ninja Turtles movie more than the first for one very simple reason: the Ninja Turtles fight other mutants in this one. That basically serves as the main difference between this sequel and its predecessor.

The story here is that a major corporation, TGRI, is trying to cover-up a toxic waste leak. It turns out this toxic waste is the very same “Ooze” that mutated the titular Ninja Turtles, and Master Splinter, into their current, humanoid selves.

It turns out that the Shredder has somehow miraculously survived the events of the first film (which included getting thrown off a building into the back of a garbage truck, and then being crushed by said garbage truck). Shredder has rounded out the remains of the Foot Clan, and plans revenge on the Turtles.

Shredder plots his revenge by kidnapping a TGRI scientist (David Warner), stealing a canister of the mysterious ooze, and uses it to create mutants of his own: Tokka and Rahzar, a monstrous snapping turtle and wolf duo of very little brain.

As you might expect, this means that the Turtles now have to deal with super-powered mutant enemies, in addition to the Shredder and the ninjas of the Foot Clan.

Like the first movie, it’s not much of a plot, but hey, the costumes for the Ninja Turtles (once again supplied by the Jim Henson Company) look great, as does the puppet for Master Splinter (Tokka and Rahzar’s costumes are less convincing, but fun to look at). The action scenes are cheesier (the Turtles don’t even use their signature weapons in battle this time), and the pizza jokes reach a new high. But what are you gonna do?

April O’Neil returns (this time played by Paige Turco), though Casey Jones is notably absent. Instead, the Turtles have a new human ally in the form of a young man named Keno (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) who is, of course, a pizza delivery boy.

Look, the movie is completely ridiculous, and it’s a cash-in sequel. But I also feel like TMNTII sets up camp in the “so bad it’s good” territory. It’s by no means a good movie, but it’s an easy guilty pleasure that I still have fun watching from time to time.

As mentioned, this feels like even more of a “Ninja Turtles movie” than the first film (despite the lack of Casey Jones or the Turtles’ weapons). The mutant baddies, cheesy humor, constant mentions of pizza, it all feels like the 1980’s cartoon series was turned into a live-action movie. Shredder even wears a proper hue of purple this time, instead of the wine red-ish color scheme he had in the first movie.

Not only is TMNTII still an ironically fun movie to revisit, but it had a bigger influence on the greater TMNT franchise than possibly any of the Ninja Turtles movies. Tokka and Rahzor went on to be integrated in the comics, video games, and various animated series, as did the Shredder’s mutated transformation, the “Super Shredder,” who debuted here. Hell, Vanilla Ice and his featured song “Ninja Rap” are now strongly associated with the franchise, due to the rapper’s infamous appearance in TMNTII, as he inexplicably performs at a club located right behind Shredder’s evil hideout.

Over the years, I’ve grown more and more disgruntled with how strongly nostalgia seems to influence people’s taste in arts and entertainment these days. People often turn a blind eye to the quality of movies released in their younger days, simply because they enjoyed them in those younger days. Yet, here I am, going to give TMNTII: The Secret of the Ooze a very mild recommendation, largely because of the nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a good movie. But if you’re like me, and you grew up with the Ninja Turtles, or are a kid who enjoys watching the more recent TMNT movies and series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze provides a stupid fun time.

Again, it’s a guilty pleasure. Vanilla Ice is performing at a club right behind Shredder’s hideout! If that doesn’t put a grin on your face, I’m not sure what will.

 

6.0

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990 Film) Review

Although the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the few 80s franchises that has remained popular even into today, the height of the franchise’s popularity was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the four turtles were inescapable.

The popularity of the franchise (particularly the original animated series) hit an apex in 1990, when a full-length, live-action motion picture adaptation of TMNT was released. If you were a kid at the time, the original TMNT movie was a big deal, and it was even the biggest family film released in its year. Watching it today, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is obviously a product of its time, but it can still provide some silly, harmless, nostalgic fun.

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the titular reptiles are brought to life with costumes provided by the Jim Henson Company which, despite some humorous mouth movements, still look quite impressive. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael have their usual personalities (Leonardo is the brave leader, Donatello is the brains, Michelangelo is the joker, and Raphael is the tough guy). They are trained by their master in ninjitsu and adoptive father, a giant rat named Splinter. Together, Master Splinter and the turtles live in the sewers of New York City, fighting crime at nightfall, obsessing over pizza in the day, as ninjas do.

The mutants find allies in news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) and the hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas).

Unfortunately for this oddball troupe of heroes, a crime wave is sweeping the city. The samurai-like villain known as the Shredder (James Saito) has resurrected the Foot Clan – an army of criminal ninjas that once caused mayhem in Japan – in New York City. Shredder is recruiting easily-manipulated youths to join the ranks in the Foot Clan.

One of the downsides of the film is that the Shredder really doesn’t have a grander scheme than that. He’s just recruiting a bunch of kids to join his organization, and after that all they ever seem to do is steal stuff. It’s bad, sure. But not exactly a compelling plot for a mysterious, evil samurai.

Anyway, things get personal when the Foot Clan kidnaps Master Splinter, with the turtles, April and Casey then making it their mission to take out the Foot Clan and rescue the turtles’ mentor.

It’s as simple of a plot as it gets, but again, it’s harmless fun. There are plenty of fight scenes which are pretty entertaining, even if they play more like segments of music videos as opposed to traditional fight scenes. As stated, the costumes for the turtles themselves – as well as the puppet for Splinter – are one of the biggest highlights, especially when watching today, when such practical effects are a rarity.

Of course, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t a movie for everybody. It definitely caters to fans of the franchise, and unless you grew up with the Turtles or are currently growing up with them, there’s probably not enough here to keep audiences entertained.

If you are a TMNT fan, however, then the 1990 film does provide a good time. I myself fit into the TMNT boat, and the 1990 film is one I still watch from time to time. I’m not one to simply fall for nostalgia, with many 90s movies I once enjoyed being practically unwatchable today. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, despite being goofy and underdeveloped, still makes for a fun viewing every once in a while.

Even if some of the enjoyment is ironic, fun is fun. And Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It’s fun.

 

6.0

Why The Force Awakens is Better Than Rogue One

*This post contains spoilers for both The Force Awakens and Rogue One!*

You know what I’m sick of? Hearing Star Wars fans constantly put down The Force Awakens while touting the supposed superiority of Rogue One. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Rogue On. But if I’m going to be honest, I thought it was the weakest non-prequel trilogy Star Wars film, while I felt The Force Awakens deserves to be ranked alongside The Empire Strikes Back as one of the series’ best entries. Again, I liked Rogue One, and hopefully by the time I’m done writing this, I won’t appear to be too dismissive of it.

I’ll save some of my more specific praises and quibbles for when I review the individual Star Wars movies. For now, I just want to write about why I think The Force Awakens is a vastly better movie than the almost-strangely beloved Rogue One.

Now, if I were to completely simplify this, my main complaints with the pro-Rogue One, anti-Force Awakens crowd can be summed up exactly as you might imagine, given the audience in question: Virtually none of their complaints are rooted in storytelling or filmmaking critiques, and are instead (as expected), little more than nerdish nitpicking.

For example, most of the people who cry foul at The Force Awakens will praise Rogue One for “reminding everyone that Star Wars is about war, and that the Galaxy isn’t all about the Skywalker family.”

Here’s the thing about that, Star Wars was always about the Skywalker family. These people seem to forget that Star Wars started its life as a singular movie. A movie about Luke Skywalker, that eventually expanded into a series about Luke and, subsequently, his father Anakin.

Yes, there is more going on in the Star Wars Galaxy than just the Skywalker family, and one of the great things about the Star Wars franchise is that it has a well-developed mythology going for it. But these fans seem to have become so engrossed in the many “expanded universe” aspects of the Star Wars franchise, that they’ve forgotten the heart and soul of the franchise (that is to say, the film series) isn’t an encyclopedia of the Galaxy far, far away, but a narrative focused on a select number of characters within said galaxy.

What I’m getting at is, if you want to find out the history of some random background character, or read up on Jedi history, or get the finer details of the many battles in the Galaxy, you have plenty of other sources to get such information. The movies are just that, movies. They have stories they need to tell, and can’t get bogged down by over-explaining a bunch of needless details about their universe just to appease fanboys.

With that said, I’m not trying to rag on Rogue One for telling a side-story within the Star Wars universe. I have nothing against the idea of spinoff Star Wars films. But the way so many Star Wars fans get irritated by the fact that The Force Awakens’ plot was centered on Luke Skywalker is ridiculous. Of course the Skywalker family was at the center of the story (even if they weren’t the main characters this time). It was the seventh episode in a saga that’s always been about them. Don’t fault it for not straying outside of the characters who have always been at the heart of the narrative.

Another complaint you’ll hear all the time from Star Wars fans targeted at The Force Awakens is how it was “a copy of the original Star Wars” (that is to say, Episode IV). While I fully admit that some of the similarities in plot were the shortcoming of The Force Awakens, it had more than enough differences in story and characters to give it its own identity. Hell, if The Force Awakens were a direct copy of A New Hope (which it isn’t), I’d argue that it’s actually the better version of it. The writing is better, the characters have more depth, and the acting is most definitely an improvement (the one look Mark Hamill gives at the end of The Force Awakens is better delivered than any of his dialogue from A New Hope).

It’s even a bit ironic that the same people who complain that The Force Awakens is too much like A New Hope are also so quick to praise Rogue One, a film in which the entire story just serves as an opening chapter to the plot of A New Hope. It literally is the same story, and ends with the beginning of the original film.

Again, I’m not trying to write-off Rogue One in the same way that so many Star Wars fans try to write-off The Force Awakens (despite having nothing but good things to say about it just over a year ago). I definitely like how Rogue One retconned the nature of the Death Star’s weakness (thus putting an end to all jokes of the competence of the Empire’s engineers), and I appreciate how – unlike George Lucas when making the prequels – the filmmakers actually seemed to have watched A New Hope multiple times to keep continuity (when Alderaan was destroyed in Episode IV, it was the first use of the Death Star’s full power. Sure enough, whenever the Death Star is used in Rogue One, they make a point to mention that they’re only sampling its strength). Point being, I like what Rogue One did with its connections to A New Hope, but don’t rag on The Force Awakens for its similarities to A New Hope when Rogue One is literally A New Hope’s previously unseen first act.

Things don’t end here though, as it seems The Force Awakens’ naysayers often criticise the characters of Episode VII, once again without so much an insight on storytelling, so much as throwing out buzzwords they probably heard on some clickbait articles. And once again, with more than a little bit of an irony, since the characters are the main weakness of Rogue One, whereas they’re one of The Force Awakens’ biggest strengths.

“You know you laughed in this scene. That’s because it worked.”

The popular target seems to be Rey, the main character of The Force Awakens, whom disgruntled Star Wars nerds like to describe as a “Mary Sue” (again, buzzwords). People often like to claim that Rey magically learns the Force and is able to do anything without even trying (it’s almost as if the Force is like magic or something).

There are a number of problems with these claims. To point out the obvious hypocrisy, Luke Skywalker learned the ways of the Force and how to use a lightsaber basically by conversing with Obi-Wan for a few hours. Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock down A New Hope, one of the most influential – and one of my favorite – films of all time. But you can’t claim Rey’s fast ascension with the Force is a problem and turn a blind eye that the exact same thing happened with Luke Skywalker. The whole point is that Rey, much like Luke, is exceptionally powerful with the Force. Ergo, they learn the ways of the Force much faster than most. Their status of being exceptional Force users is kind of the whole point of their characters.

“People like to bemoan how Rey defeats Kylo Ren in her first lightsaber duel, but Kylo Ren is still in the learning process of lightsaber combat as well. Also they use magic.”

So people like to claim that Rey “magically” learns everything, and is inexperienced in lightsaber combat when she defeats Kylo Ren – a master of the Dark Side of the Force – in a duel towards the end of The Force Awakens. But there are a number of reasons why these complaints are – as is often the case with Star Wars – little more than fans overreacting.

I already touched on the fact that Rey is supposed to be exceptionally powerful with the Force, and like all stories where the main character is particularly gifted in magic, said character learns their abilities quickly.

More notably in Rey’s case, we still have two more movies on the horizon that will explain more about her character. There are still places for her to go, and secrets about her to be revealed. Don’t be surprised if she’s revealed to be the “Chosen One” who has been brought up in virtually every Star Wars film, but never actually realized (Luke was never revealed as such in Return of the Jedi, after all). So we still have apt time for explanations for why Rey learns the Force so quickly. Maybe, just maybe, people shouldn’t get ahead of themselves just so they can complain about something.

Another aspect to point out is that The Force Awakens doesn’t treat Rey like an expert in everything she’s doing. She’s just as taken aback as anyone by her powers. She’s someone who’s exceptionally powerful with the Force, but is surprised by her power. It doesn’t just make her out as someone who automatically knows the solution to every dilemma (that would be a Mary Sue).

Most importantly, Rey actually has a character. She’s shown to have dimensions and depth, she actually has worries and concerns (sometimes to her detriment, like wanting to stay on a junk planet to hopelessly wait for someone from her past to return).

Compare this to Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One, who doesn’t have many defining character traits outside of being the daughter of a scientist coerced into the Empire’s forces. She has a decent enough opening backstory – being adopted by a Rebel extremist after the Empire takes her father and kills her mother – but she really doesn’t have much to speak of in terms of personality or depth. She just comes off as a character passing through the story. Sadly, the same can be said about most of the members of Rogue One (save for K-2S0, the droid of all characters).

Yes, we do see some different shades of the Rebellion in Rogue One (like when Cassian – Rogue One’s eventual captain – kills his informant in cold blood, revealing a previously unseen side to the good guys of Star Wars), and we get to see a more ruthless Rebel leader in Saw Gerrera. That’s a great change of pace for the Star Wars franchise, to be sure, but while Rogue One succeeds in giving the Rebellion some depth, it struggles to do so with its main characters, and outright doesn’t even try with its villains.

Now, Star Wars has largely had archetypal characters since day one. But the movies always managed to bring out a lot of personality and depth out of them. And though not all of Star Wars’ villains have shared in that (Boba Fett and Darth Maul, despite being fan favorites, really didn’t do anything other than look cool), The Force Awakens actually managed to create one of the series’ most fleshed-out villains in Kylo Ren, who is – ironically enough – often the subject of ridicule by the same old critics.

Kylo Ren was something akin to an inverse Anakin Skywalker. While Anakin was a Jedi who was seduced by the dark side of the Force, Kylo Ren is a master of the dark side (they never quite referred to him as a Sith) who is tempted by the light side of the Force. He was the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa/Skywalker, and the grandson of Darth Vader. He wishes to become more powerful than Darth Vader, while trying to avoid what he perceives as Vader’s downfall (his last minute turn to the light to save his son). So Kylo Ren is a villain who’s trying to prove his worth to himself and his cause, while also showing a level of insecurity that usually only the good guys display.

Of course, many fans are quick to point out Kylo Ren’s “temper tantrums” as reasons why the character is supposedly not a compelling villain (yet these same people swear by Boba Fett who, again, never really did much of note). The thing is, these so-called “temper tantrums” go back to my ‘inverse Darth Vader’ statement. As any Star Wars fan knows, when one of Vader’s lackeys failed to do their job, Vader simply strangled them for their failures. Kylo Ren instead shows a level of restraint, and when given bad news by one of his men, will take his anger out by destroying some equipment and breaking a few things, instead of killing his henchmen in cold blood. He may be trying his damnedest to surrender himself to the dark side, but he’s still not their yet, and can’t bring himself to kill his own men.

That’s called inner conflict within the character. That’s interesting.

Let’s compare that to Rogue One’s baddie, Director Orson Krennic. Though the character is well-acted by Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic ends up being a huge missed opportunity. As stated, Rogue One does a great job at showing an ugly side to the Rebellion, yet it showcases the Empire as more cartoonishly evil than ever.

Rogue One had the chance to show an Imperial higher-up who wasn’t simply doing what he did “because evil.” It would have been nice to see an Imperial villain who maybe believed what he was doing was right, instead of simply delighting in causing destruction and death across the Galaxy.

“How can I best evil today?”

The disappointing thing is, Rogue One almost hints at such a character in its opening moments through a quick dialogue exchange. “We were this close to providing peace and security for the Galaxy.” Krennic tells a defiant Galen Erso, who responds with “You’re confusing peace with terror.” It’s a brief bit of dialogue that suggests Krennic may actually believe what he’s doing is ultimately for a greater good, no matter how terrible it may seem (and indeed is). But then the film fails to follow-up on that moment in regards to Krennic’s character, who instead remarks on how beautiful the destruction of a city is when they test the Death Star’s power on it.

That’s really where the great fault with Rogue One lies: the characters. Though The Force Awakens had some character missteps (the underutilized Captain Phasma being the most obvious example, but at least she has two chances to be redeemed in the sequels), it managed to make most of them memorable additions to the franchise. Aside from the snarky K-2S0, none of Rogue One’s characters end up amounting to much more than what their introductions present us with.

Chirrut Îmwe, for example, is a blind man, but can fight because of his skills with the Force. And that’s pretty much all there is to say about him. Meanwhile, Bodhi Rook, the Imperial pilot turned Rebel, is so bland you’ll probably forget he’s even a part of the team.

“Would you like to know the probability of K-2S0 being the one endearing character in this movie?”

This proves especially detrimental due to Rogue One’s ending. Now, I’m not about to rag on the third act of Rogue One, because I think it’s brilliantly executed, and arguably the best “last ten minutes” of any Star Wars film. Seeing every last member of Rogue One meet their end (some in a blaze of glory, others in tragically unceremonious ways) is an effective and moving ending. But it would have been all the more effective and moving if the two-plus hours beforehand had really made us care about this band of Rebel misfits for reasons other than that they’re the main characters.

Think of how impactful Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens was (even if we saw it coming). As soon as Han Solo died, the film reached an emotional crescendo. Sure, it’s easy to say that Han Solo is a classic character who many of us have loved since we were kids, but the fact of the matter is we loved him in the first place because of how well-realised he was as a character. As great as Rogue One’s ending is, it’s a big emotional ending to a lot of characters who previously didn’t give us a whole lot of emotional resonance.

Okay, by now I probably am sounding dismissive of Rogue One. But that’s only because the whole reason for writing this post is to point out why I don’t think it’s as good as The Force Awakens, which most Star Wars fans seem to disagree on (though it seems like most movie critics are more on the same boat as me, if that means anything). The Force Awakens isn’t a perfect movie, either (as stated, there are indeed maybe a few too many similarities to A New Hope, even if fans exaggerate them, and Captain Phasma probably should have waited to show up in Episode VIII, where she’ll hopefully have more to do). But with the way so many Star Wars fans talk about The Force Awakens, you’d think it were some kind of plague.

Star Wars fans seem to love Rogue One because of how it shows that there’s more to the Star Wars universe than just the Skywalker story, and how it showcases various little details about the Galaxy far, far away that broaden its world-building and revive memories of the expanded universe (my friends still mention how a Hammerhead from Knights of the Old Republic shows up). That’s all well and dandy, but these elements don’t make a better movie. They just adhere to hardcore fans who read all the books, watch the TV shows, and so forth. They aren’t elements that improve storytelling.

In the end, Rogue One is a fun entry in the Star Wars franchise that serves as a great introduction to these new Star Wars offshoots. But The Force Awakens gave us more compelling characters, more memorable dialogue, and better editing and pacing (the “Bor Gullet” scene in Rogue One should have been left out entirely, considering its a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere).

It seems like fans’ insistence of Rogue One’s superiority over The Force Awakens is rooted more in its placement and setting in the Star Wars universe – which branches out the fanservice a bit – as opposed to more legitimate and insightful critiques on the storytelling.

I greatly enjoyed Rogue One. But to put it simply, The Force Awakens is a better movie.

The Return of Bringing Up my Eventual List of Favorite Video Games of All Time

Oh no… Am I doing this again?! Seriously?! Well, okay…

Well, if you’re a long-time follower of the Dojo, you may remember that I often teased that I was planning on writing my list of favorite video games of all time. I always intended to do it, but for one reason or another, it always ended up getting postponed, to the point that it seemingly became a bad recurring joke.

Well, I thought I’d let my dear, sweet readers that I am planning, once again, to make my list of all-time favorite video games, after several months of not bringing the subject up here at the Dojo.

Now, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up (because your life totally revolves around me and my lists), because I don’t have a set timeframe for when I will be doing this, but I thought it’d be nice to inform everyone that I am indeed planning this once again.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, to echo some of my past writings, I have never “officially” compiled my list of all-time favorite video games anywhere. And of course, once you do it once, it seems like you should wait a good while before you think about doing it again, otherwise the list may feel like it doesn’t mean anything. I love video games, and like to think I know a thing or two about them.

So basically, I want my first go at making an all-time favorites list one that wouldn’t need to be revised for a good while, and that can accurately reflect my love and (supposed) knowledge of games themselves.

Of course, this brings me to why I have not yet set a deadline for myself: I may want to wait until the end of 2017/beginning of 2018. Why? Because 2017 is proving to be a really great year for video games, with Breath of the Wild already making a big difference in how my list would have otherwise looked.

I will let my readers and fellow bloggers give their two cents on if I should wait that long or not. But again, I want to make sure I get this right the first time so that, when I inevitably do revise it, it’s because I’ve played more fantastic games that deserve placement, and not because I regret anything the first time around (of course, considering this list is entirely based on personal opinion, perhaps I’m just overthinking all of this).

Speaking of my fellow bloggers, I of course invite some of them to join in the festivities and compile their own lists of favorite video games. Preferably around the same time I end up making mine so we can all link to each other’s lists and make it one big, special event. But they can make them whenever, should they choose to partake.

The following bloggers are officially invited to make their own lists along with me.

Mike and Jack from Miketendo64

Matt from NintendoBound

Alex from After Story Gaming

And the other Alex from Mr. Panda’s Video Game Reviews

Also, the door is always open for Red Metal of Extra Life Reviews to join in should he choose, but that’s up to him.

The only real rule I have for your lists – should you choose to accept them – is that they consist of at least ten games. You can list more than ten, but no less. Because a top nine just sounds goofy. Otherwise, list whatever games are your favorites. Staunch exceptionalist that I am, I’m perfectly okay with things like multiple entries from a single franchise (it’s a list of favorites/bests, there’s no place for the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality here). So yeah, a minimum of ten is the only rule.

Again, whether or not I make my list within the next few months or at the dawn of 2018, I’m not sure yet. I’d love for you guys to give a little say-so on that. And should any of my fellow bloggers want to join in on this endeavor (Spoiler alert: some of them do because I talked to them on Twitter), then that’s just swell!

On an unrelated note, I hope to have some news in regards to my personal studies on video game design soon. Because I don’t just want to write about games. I’d like to make them one day, too.

What’s that? This post is entirely arbitrary? And I mostly just recycled aforementioned information and thought I could pass it off as new because I haven’t talked about it in a while? I’m making a complete what of myself? and now I’m making it worse by repeating everything you say over the microphone?

Oh, c’mon, don’t tell me you don’t get the reference! Okay, I’m done writing now. See you later.

Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop Review

*This Review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

The Cooking Mama series has been around for a while now, and has largely endured thanks to its simple (and often addictive) gameplay, and it’s cute, often irresistible charm. The series’ newest entry, Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop on the Nintendo 3DS, puts an emphasis on players opening their own bakery, and trying to make the best sugary sweets to attract customers.

Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop continues the series’ mini-game-based gameplay and, following in the series’ long history on consoles such as the Wii and Nintendo DS, makes good use of the 3DS’ hardware. Unfortunately, those who are familiar with the series may not find a whole lot of newness in Sweet Shop, and while some of the mini-games are fun and accessible, others are a bit harder to figure out.

As stated, the goal of Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop is to make the best sweets around, and gradually build-up your bakery to gain more and more customers. Along the way, the player is aided by Cooking Mama, the adorable, cartoonish namesake of the series.

In order to create the baked goods, players need to complete a short series of mini-games, which each use the touchscreen and mic of the 3DS in unique ways.

Some mini-games may have you swiping the touchscreen to spread chocolate on a cannoli, while others will have you pouring flour in a dish by tapping its side, while taking a break every time the wind blows in from an open window (if this happens, you’ll have to blow into the 3DS mic to clear the screen of flour). Other games may have you dropping ingredients into a bowl and stirring them, followed up by placing them in an oven and getting the temperature right to make cookies.

For the most part, the mini-games are simple and fun, and it’s great that you have to go through a series of them in order to make a single dessert (earning medals for your performance in each mini-game). The more desserts you make, the more new desserts you unlock, some of which may share a few mini-games with others, making the game something of a test of memory as well reflexes.

On the downside of things, there were a few mini-games that I simply couldn’t figure out. You only get brief descriptions of each mini-game beforehand, and due to the general simplicity of the games, that’s usually enough. But there were a number of mini-games that are slightly more complex (having to act fast and perform specific actions for different ingredients in succession). And in these cases, the short descriptions just weren’t very helpful, making the games themselves cryptic and confusing.

On the bright side, such games are in the minority, but it does make it jarring when you go through a number of simple, easy mini-games, and then end up doing one you can’t get right because you can’t figure out what to do.

Still, once you start making a series of sweets and your shop starts stocking up, it’s fun to see more and more customers coming in. And the more customers you gain, the more you can customize the shop itself.

It’s really simple stuff, but Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop is fun, and it’s one of the more charming mini-game compilations to come around in the post-Wii generations.

Aesthetically, the graphics are simple but colorful, and the sounds are cute (I especially like Cooking Mama’s thick Japanese accent, which somehow makes the game even cuter). Though they also don’t really look much different than any of the Cooking Mama games that came before.

Cooking Mama: Sweet Shop is good, simple fun, if maybe not anything you haven’t seen before from the series, and when the mini-games don’t work, it feels entirely conflicting from the game’s otherwise accessible nature. But if you’re new to the series or just can’t get enough Cooking Mama, then Sweet Shop at the very least provides some entertaining mini-games and some addicting customization elements.

6.0