Missy Schwartz
March 23, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

They were the world’s most fearsome fighting team! Yep, we’re talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: that pizza-gobbling, sewer-dwelling foursome who boasted a hit animated series from 1987 to 1997, three live-action features that grossed $256.3 million by 1993, and global merchandise sales totaling more than $6 billion. They were the hottest kids’ commodity around…until the Power Rangers came along in the mid-’90s and kicked the Turtles back into their manholes.

Well, cowabunga, dude! Fourteen years after their last run at the cineplex, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo are back with TMNT, a flashy CG flick from Warner Bros. opening March 23. But why now? ”We started to see that there was a new fan base,” says producer Thomas K. Gray, referring to the moderate success of the revamped TMNT cartoon currently airing on Fox affiliates. Gray, who also produced the live-action movies, figured that the new pint-size fans, coupled with the ”alumni” twentysomething devotees of the original cartoon, could make for a box office hit. Working with TMNT co-creator Peter Laird, Gray and director Kevin Munroe set out to create a gritty, high-action update reminiscent of the comic books the first series was based on — all while maintaining a PG rating. To freshen up the story, they jettisoned archenemy the Shredder, and for marquee appeal, they hired stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar (The Grudge) and Patrick Stewart (X-Men) to voice characters. And by handling most of their animation in Hong Kong, they kept the budget under $40 million, about $80 million less than the average Pixar feature.

Sounds like a decent plan. But will anyone care? So far, reviews have been mixed, and purists are irked by the Shredder’s absence. But just as director Michael Bay is betting on nostalgia to fuel his Transformers reboot this summer, Gray and Co. are hoping folks will have a soft spot for the heroes in a half shell. ”The alumni are gonna be there, I guarantee it,” says Gray. ”I think we’re gonna be huge.”

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