At the turn of the ‘80s and ‘90s, four adolescent, martial arts wielding amphibians and their rodent sensei were the biggest thing. Who’d have thought that an indie comic originally made to make fun of Frank Miller and Dave Sim would forge such a media brand empire? There were action figures, a run of excellent beat-em-up arcade video games, a Saturday morning cartoon show that lasted ten seasons (it’s rare for those to last more than one), and of course movies. So, with the release for the first time of the live action trilogy all in one package in the UK on DVD and Blu Ray, let’s take a look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cowabunga!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
A crime wave has hit New York City. Reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) has found evidence that a ninja group called the Foot Clan is at work, but their leader the Shredder (James Saito) is ready to silence her. Good thing that she’s made some new friends to help her out; four brothers born within the city’s storm-drains, and trained by a Japanese rat, Splinter. Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
What’s interesting here is that the film is a surprisingly close take on the original comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird published by Mirage. The Turtles’ characterisations, manner and surfer-speak are more like the cartoon, but the plot and tone are from the comic, which for a younger audience targeted film is brave. The whole movie has a rather unique gritty urban feel for a family film, with a New York that truly feels like New York. The plot isn’t afraid of going into some darker areas, like Master Splinter’s imprisonment by the villains, or his back-story. The whole thing is a good balance of the fun characters fans of the show would like, with the style that got them noticed in the first place.
The movie’s aged remarkably well, and makes for an interesting little time capsule of the ‘90s. By far the most impressive things about the film are the Turtles themselves. Not only are they very well realised through animatronic masks from the Jim Henson Workshop, but the fact that such impressive fight choreography can be done in the costumes. Yes, the film doesn’t skimp on the action either, with some very impressive set piece battles well placed through the film, including the last twenty minutes being almost non-stop butt kicking.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still a fun watch to this day for most ages. For kids, they’ll love the titular characters and their antics. For adults, they’ll like the surprisingly layered story and action scenes. Plus, if you grew up at the turn of the ‘80s, this is just a huge nostalgia fest. They took a few risks in making something best known for a bright, cheerful cartoon into a darker, proper martial arts tale, but it paid it off (especially in the box office; $200m for a $13m film). Well worth watching, and not just so you can spot a young Sam Rockwell in the cast.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
Shredder has survived his battle with the Turtles and seeks revenge. The tool of his revenge is the same substance that mutated them, discovered to be the property of company TGRI. Soon, with the aid of a kidnapped scientist (David Warner), he has two new mutant henchmen at his disposal, the snapping turtle Tokka and wolf Rahzar.
It seems that at some point after the first film, there were cries of “won’t somebody please think of the children!?” as the tone has been lightened considerably. The urban setting is now a full on “I <3 New York” T-Shirt wearing tourist take on the city (with the opening looking more like an ad for Pizza Hutt than anything else). The fight scenes are now always done with cartoon “boink” sound effects and silly gimmicky items. The Turtles’ dialogue is now almost entirely lame jokes and instantly dated pop-culture references, to the point you just want them all to shut up. They’ve also dropped any element of actual ninjitsu or stealth, preferring to run in like gibbering idiots. Oh, and it’s never explained how Shredder survived what happened at the end of last film; master ninja or not, you don’t get up and walk away from that so easily.
Now all this can be seen as making it more in line with the cartoon series; fair enough, but they went too far down that line. The formerly very menacing Shredder has now become the considerably less threatening, more impotent figure from the show, with him barely seeming a challenge. Even the cartoon had better written dialogue and jokes in places, and at least that was tonally consistent. Besides, out of all the ludicrous things to happen on there, it didn’t have something like the climax here. It turns out the bad guys hideout is right next to a Vanilla Ice concert, who, on taking one look at the Turtles, instantly busts out a ninja-themed rap. With full choreography and dance moves. It’s a moment that’s legendary in terms of bad movies, and it’s the one way to enjoy this film; as a very goofy guilty pleasure movie. Otherwise, it’s kind of a mess compared to the first.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III
April finds in an antique store an ancient sceptre, which turns out to have magic abilities. It sends her four hundred years back in time to feudal Japan, and the Turtles must go after her. While there, they get caught in the evil machinations of Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) and the arms dealer Walker (Stuart Wilson).
Ok, first big problem here, why time travel? Between the comics, the cartoon, the games and such there was a huge amount of material to draw from for a third film in terms of storylines and characters. So why on Earth parachute the Turtles into a time and setting they have absolutely no business being in? It’s possible that it was done purely to tie into the fourth video game, Turtles in Time, but even then it still had all the sorts of characters you’d expect of the franchise in there. Who goes to see a TMNT movie wanting to see the most boring stock samurai drama ever?
The whole thing is completely half arsed; in fact it’s barely even quarter arsed. The script is bland beyond belief, with the lamest humour of the entire franchise, which considering the previous film is saying a lot. There’s nothing memorable, interesting or even tolerable to watch in here, even kids wouldn’t cope with this. The biggest disappointment is the Turtles themselves; the Jim Henson Workshop has left the franchise, and oh boy does it show. The first film broke new ground with the costumes and effects, the second, as silly as it is, still kept that up. The costumes here wouldn’t pass muster as theme park mascots, especially the awful rod puppet Splinter. It may be a mercy they didn’t include other characters from the franchise; if the leads turned out this bad, God only knows what Krang or whoever would have ended up like. Avoid this one like the plague, especially if you want to keep your nostalgia for the property.
Overall this new Blu-Ray restoration is recommended for the first film alone. If you get this, just look at the other two films as bonus feature discs you barely have to look at. For better follow-ups than the sequels, you should try the animated movie TMNT from 2007. Also, the current cartoon is a lot of fun; one of the latest episodes is a full on Alien homage. With squirrels. Still, the real question will be which will age better; the first film or the Michael Bay produced version out next year? Only time will tell… (hint: it will be this one!).