Turtles, a little soft in the shell, get back in the soup

TMNT, the acronymic, computer-animated big-screen return of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, begins far from the Manhattan sewerscapes that spawned these goofball superheroes two decades ago.

In a portentous prologue, narrator Laurence Fishburne recounts a fateful battle of Central American warlords 3,000 years in the past, an equally fateful alignment of cosmic forces, and some hugger-mugger about generals made immortal and monsters turned to stone.

There's not a slice of pizza anywhere.

Happily, the prologue is just that, and before long April O'Neil, the Turtles' onetime TV news reporter friend - looking stick-thin and sounding like Sarah Michelle Gellar - runs into Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) in Mexico, where he's been busy meditating, honing his ninja chops, and thwacking thugs.

She persuades Leonardo to return home, where he encounters a listless trio: Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield), and Raphael (Nolan North). Mikey and Donny have abandoned crime-busting to loll around their subway lair, while Raphael, unbeknownst to his colleagues and to their sage guru, Splinter (Mako), skulks off nightly to interrupt muggers and robbers, disguised as the Nightwatcher.

The Turtles have become soft, indifferent, dysfunctional.

But thanks to Maximilian Winters (Patrick Stewart) a kabillionaire mogul with a hidden past, that's all about to change. Although the plot is unnecessarily complex, with a troop of ninjas adding to the confusion, TMNT moves along at a good pace. The Turtles work out their issues and proceed to leap rooftops, crack heads and crack wise.

Darker and a little scarier than the live-action films and the Turtles' animated series, TMNT is not so dark or scary as to keep most kids away. Written and directed by animator Kevin Munroe, TMNT has a cool, noirish sheen. There's an attention to detail in the visuals and sound design that pushes it up several notches above most kiddie fare.

It's not art, dude, but it will do.

TMNT **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Peter Laird. With the voices of James Arnold Taylor, Mikey Kelley, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart and Nolan North. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (cartoon violence, mayhem, monsters, dark places)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.