In preparation for the Michael Bay produced/Johnathan Leibesman directed/Nickelodeon Movies financed (wow, lot of cooks in the kitchen here) reboot, I felt it was fair to revisit the three live-action movies that defined the 1990’s and its “Turtle Power” phenomenon. Sure there was the comic book series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as well as the 1987 animated TV series that grew from it. But for any kid growing up in that era, they had to have seen the live-action films or at least one or two of them. Transitioning an absurd idea like mutant turtles with the personality of teenagers that practice the art of ninjitsu and eat pizza is a really ridiculous idea. But that’s really the fun of it. These turtles have personality, they are fun to be with and the enjoyment comes from the comedy and action that hold it together. Unlike Howard the Duck where it was trying to take a complex comic book property and simplify it for mainstream audiences (yeah, I don’t think certain things like Doctor Bong would be “transition-able” without explanation), the Turtles had concepts and elements that people could understand and connect with. Not to say the Marvel waterfowl can’t have its audience, but there is always a certain way to transition these crazy ideas. There has to be a certain niche for it.
A good start is the 1990 film which everyone says is the best of the batch and arguably one of the best comic book adaptations. In fact, I honestly agree. Looking at the first issue recently, I was surprised to see how dark and gritty it was in contrast to the light-hearted and campy animated series. But the film really sticks it the dark tone with the guidance of music video director Steve Barron (who did Micheal Jackson’s “Bille Jean, ” a-Ha’s “Take on Me,” and many others) who knows how to transition between the goofy comedy of the animated series and the comics. Its filmed with a such a dark but yet realistic cinematography that you actually almost feel like this is real New York. Compared to Tim Burton’s Batman where Gotham was like a 1940’s crime wave city that was tall and brooding, Barron manages to fuse the harsh city look of New York and make it look realistic while not going too over the top and comic-booky.
The turtles themselves are a delight to watch with Leonardo and Raphael clashing heads about what is right for the team while Leonardo and Michelangelo provide plenty of comic relief to balance out the yin and yang in the group. They very much feel like siblings when to comes to their relationship in the group. They fight like brothers, they act among each other like brothers and know how to work together. This is what makes the four really believable when it comes to successfully developing personality in the group. Yeah, they are the standard color-coded brains, bad boy, fun guy and leader group but it was a standard of the 1980’s and 1990’s for kids but at least its done right and developed well. You feel bad when Raphael threatens to leave the group and laugh away at how upbeat and goofy Michelangelo is.
Then there is the sensei and adoptive father of the batch in the form of an humanoid rat named Splinter (surprisingly performed and voiced by Muppeteer vetren Kevin Clash of Elmo-fame…yes! Elmo performed Splinter. Mind freaked yet?) who discovered the small batch of baby turtles in a vat of ooze and upon mutating with them, decides to teach them the ways of the ninja. And like a father, he really acts like a respected figure to the four. Sure they go the route with his limits on “kiddie-fair” when the Turtles act like kids but the amphibious quad look up to him because of how wise and kind he acts. He doesn’t lash out at them when they make a mistake or berates them. Even when Raphael is loosing control of his anger, Splinter reacts by have a simple talk down and discussing what is the honorable way as opposed to ignoring it. And that’s a very realistic move. One could argue he is the Mr. Miyagi of the group but he is all around a well developed character.
I should probably break here and talk about the puppetry work by the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This was one of the last projects Jim approved before his unfortunate passing and honestly, he couldn’t have picked a better property to test out his new effects on. This was a turning point for special effects even though this was tested before with other projects by Jim Henson like The Dark Crystal, The Storyteller, Fraggle Rock and that’s just to a name a few. But here, the suit performers have a bigger task to handle because they not only have to work on the puppetry but also the stunts. Let me tell you, I’ve seen countless behind the scenes documentaries on this kind of puppetry and suit performance. It can be hell to do. But thanks to the suit performances and the operators controlling the heads, it comes beautifully together. You forget your watching special effects and actually believe you are seeing mutant turtles fighting the Foot clan and interacting with each other. And that was the magic of Jim Henson’s craft. You knew it was a puppet but get so invested in how lifelike it acts that you really get lost in the illusion. And being the big Muppet-head that I am, this element makes the film all the more enjoyable knowing the effect work of your characters are in good care.
Assisting the turtles is April O’Neil, a news anchor that is looking for scoop on the mysterious Foot Clan, and a street vigilante named Casey Jones complete with a hockey mask and some sports equipment. April at times feels like the damsel in distress but she likes to have fun with the Turtles and will do all she can to help them out. Even when she looses her job, the least she can do is look after Splinter’s adopted amphibians because of how much danger they are in as much as her. Casey Jones stands out as the tough guy. Sure, he acts like the Harrison Ford hard shell but from the street but there are times when he knows to be mature and straight up vigilante. A key moment is near the end when he convinces new members of the Foot Clan what family really means and it actually works. Sure its brief but it diminishes Casey as a rebel. He knows there are times when he can be immature and adult at the right times.
The villain is heavy laden armor baddie known as the Shredder who plans to create a group known as the Foot Clan to extinguish the existence of Splinter and his turtles. This sounds silly at first until you learn that its really a revenge ploy as Shredder was enemies with Splinter’s owner before the rat got mutated. I can’t give too much away but it makes sense to why someone like Shredder would go after Splinter. And this is where I really start to appreciate the 1990 film more. It has the idea of an absurd kid’s film but inside is a martial arts movie along the lines of Akira Kurosawa for kids. Shredder is an angry entry that will stop at nothing to see evil prevails while Splinter’s teachings show how evil can often lead to its own downfall. Even the movie has its own archetypes of a martial arts movie with themes of revenege, coming of age and understanding who we are.
At times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can be a little “cartoony” at times but they are very brief moments like a taxi cab driver seeing a turtle in a trench coat and shrugging it off or the pop culture humor of Michelangelo. But they are very brief and don’t detract from the mature tone of the film. I know some parents back then had concerns about the level of violence in the movie but I think its fairly tame compared to today’s films. Even considering Steven Barron is in the directing chair, the action scenes feel very stylized and well-choreographed. Overall, this is truly a good entry.
In terms of the sequels, however, this were things went really downhill. I should stress a lot of fans of the time thought the live-action film was based on the cartoon they watched. This is true but the 1990 film blurred that line between the dark nature of the comic book and the fun of the animated series that it could go both ways. The next film “Secret of the Oooze” on the other hand goes straight up for the goofy tone of the animated series. And I mean it really embellishes itself with the over the top and campy nature. Again, parents had concerns about the mature tone of the first film and thus things were heavily toned down for the sequel. Gone was the gritty look of New York, gone were the Turtles using their weapons and even gone was Casey Jones.
Instead, the Turtles used toys and silly tactics to play out their fights, New York looked and was filmed like a cute vacation greeting card and instead we got a pizza delivery kid that had cool moves but felt like he was picked up from a Karate Kid movie. No disrespect to the character of Keno and his actor but he really feels like he’s either having a hard time trying to break the fact he’s in a Turtles movie or just isn’t that good of an actor. Its a shame because I can really see this character working but most of the time his personality is close to Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He’s always excited and upbeat but doesn’t feel serious or intimidating when needed to be. On the upside, his stunt work is great considering he did double as Donatello in the previous movie but I don’t think his acting was that strong for me.
And even the Turtles got a slight downgrade as they when from brothers trying to work together to the personality of a surfer gang that you find at the beach. They constantly crack jokes, shove one pop culture reference after another and it gets nearly to the point of feeling dead irritating. From time to time, there was a funny line or a decent joke but they mostly got annoying as one pop culture reference came out after another from their mouth. Even Splinter feels different here. No longer is he a fatherly figure but has the Turtles feel like a comedic foil in terms of a relationship. He keeps acting like a grumpy neighbor telling them to smarten up and has them doing back-flips as punishment. Kevin Clash returns to preform and voice but feels limited to what the script wants him to do and doesn’t come off as wise and graceful as the first film.
Shredder returns with a new plan to defeat the turtles by means of mutating a wolf and snapping turtle named Tokka and Rahza with the same vile of ooze that affected the turtles. Its explained here that the ooze came from a scientific lab run by Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner) who plans to dispose of the toxic chemicals and see to a clean up is made. And surprisingly, this is what nearly saves this movie from being a lackluster sequel. The way the mutants Tokka and Rahzar interact is like two big babies enjoying every ounce of chaos and destruction. They are designed in a goofy way but can be fun to watch when they two call their master “Mama” when they first appear and how much dedication they take to tossing the Turtles about. And its always nice to see a movie take a veteran actor of science fiction and fantasy to the point you can tell they are having fun. David Warner doesn’t fall into the trap of being an evil scientist and you can appreciate just how humane he is to his work. He doesn’t like bathing his toxin to animals but still respects them as creatures.
All in all, this is a really silly but entertainingly dumb movie. What saves it from being a bad sequel is the campy execution. A good example is a scene near the end when the Turtles are having a fight but find themselves bursting into a club where Vanilla Ice is performing causing him to make an impromptu rap about the turtles. Its dumb on paper but you can tell everyone is having fun with it (even David Warner gets in on the crowd’s excitement at one point.) While it clearly hasn’t aged well, it still has its moments of entertainment but more guilty pleasure.
Unfortunately, the third movie is the complete opposite. Despite having the character of Casey Jones back, it’s not enough to save the movie or even just how straight stupid it is. The concept along does have promise but where they take it is just dull and flat. April O’Neil gets a time traveling device from a junk shop (never explained. probably a car boot sale) and the gang switches places with Japanese warriors with the exception of Splinter staying behind. So now they have to go back in time to save April but then they run into a British explorer and his crew that look like Pirates of the Caribbean stock who plan to culturize Japan with modern day weaponry with canons and guns. Or possibly take them over? Its something never fully explained well.
The main problem with the third movie is how these two styles often clash. You have what could be a historical period piece with the modernization of Japan switching from swords to guns. But then you have the way-too kid friendly Turtles cracking one pun after another and each gets worse and worse. If the second one was a tad irradiating, at least they had dialogue that mattered. Here, its all puns and pop culture references and it looses its flavor fast.
Even worse is the puppetry. The studio who supplied the suits and Splinter puppet was the All Effects Company who did great work like Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 and the Energizer Bunny. The mouths are poorly lip-synched and ever badly moving. Its like two flapjacks opening and closing. That’s how bad it is. Not to mention you can see where the mechanical head and neck attach. Never saw that in the other two movies. Even Splinter is a disgrace. He’s only seen from the waist up and operated from the waist up. All the puppetry gets more faulty when you see the mechanisms jerk a lot but Splinter is clearly the worst because of little the hands move and he’s not given a lot of dramatic movement. Clearly, he was cheaply built.
And that’s what describes this one. Its cheaply built. There’s no effort in the plot, no effort in the effects and even the humor is dull and annoying. Even when they try to make an emotional scene, its very brief and doesn’t make much an impact. There’s a subplot with Raphael saving a kid from a burning house and makes friends with the kid but that doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, to create more confusion, they mess with the continuity seeing it is a time traveling movie but it feels wasted. There’s a bit where we see Casey Jones’ ancestor and Splinter’s in the same room which is inconveniently weird. But then they push it with the kid that Raphael befriends is referred to as Yoshi. Now, here is where I should jump back to the first film. Splinter’s owner is named Hamato Yoshi and is where Splinter learned his ninjitsu training. This kid’s name is Yoshi so we can only guess that he’s either just called Yoshi or is Hamato Yoshi’s ancestor! And worse, I feel like I’m the only one whose picked up on this!!!! Oh Internet, is there anything you can’t do.
Regardless, its sad to see the series ended on such a sour note. The first movie is easily the best of the batch while the other two suffer from being too silly or too campy. “Secret of the Ooze” at least makes up for it with something creative and entertaining. Sure it can feel cheap at times but when everyone is having a good time and having fun on the set, you can feel it. The final one is just skippable. It doesn’t offer anything new or even anything remotely investing. Its just hampered by a weak script with a good concept but feels like its cashing in on the Bill and Ted/Back to the Future craze. I’d say check out the first two and you might get your money’s worth. But if you want a good, solid entry? Then the first movie is more for you.