Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began life as an independent comic book in the 80s, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Its surprise popularity quickly led to more comics, soon paving the way for the 1987 animated series, which really propelled the franchise to the stratosphere (much to the chagrin of its creators, given its far goofier tone). Three years later, at the height of Turtlemania, came the first movie...
A silent crime wave has gripped New York, and the police seem incapable of stopping it. Only plucky reporter April O'Neil has provided any theory on the cause, and unfortunately for her she is all too correct. A band of ninjas surround her in the subway one night, but she is saved by four unlikely heroes. Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Teenage mutant ninja turtles, who are ready to kick shell, and take on the evil Foot Clan and their master, The Shredder...
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a marvellous adventure, both for kids and adults. It tells a simple but compelling story, and acts as a great introduction to these characters and their world.
This film really surprised me going in, not only for how serious it plays the material compared with the 87 series, but also how reminiscent it is of the 2003 show! It was like seeing the stories of that series play out on the big screen! Over a decade before it came out. Yeah, I guess I'm behind the loop a little bit. While very much its own thing, this also doesn't feel like an odd man out next to the 87 version, and is a good companion piece.
The film has a darker tone to it, but never extreme. It succeeds by knowing where to strike a balance. Just because it has its serious moments, doesn't mean the film lacks a sense of humour, or childlike adventure. Not only do these keep TMNT from becoming joyless, they also make the serious moments that much more effective.
The story is quite an involved one. We've got an intriguing mystery, and a good viewpoint character with April. It's not too long before we're introduced to the real heroes, and they all get plenty to do. As the story expands, we get some ninja encounters, and some victories as well as a big loss for the Turtles, who go into hiding as they determine what to do next, and where to find the strength to succeed.
This is a very faithful adaption (whatever that means, when there are so many continuities!). There are a few interesting changes to the source material too. It's Raphael who gets ambushed and badly hurt by the Foot ninjas, it's April's old family farmhouse, not Casey's, and more.
The climax is alright, but a little disappointing. I think the root cause of this is that this moment is the ending to an issue (or episode, rather), whereas here it's supposed to be the grand finale to the whole movie. It's trying to be bigger than what it is. It also doesn't help that Shredder's death is a little anticlimactic, especially when the Turtles don't even get a chance to beat him.
Onto the characters, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael are great leads. Their personalities all come through, and they're all balanced well. None feel shortchanged. They get plenty of funny moments, cool action, as well as surprisingly emotional scenes. Raphael also get a few 'Damn's' in, which can feel a bit cheesy to an older viewer, but it goes without saying that any kids watching will be over the moon to hear their favourite characters 'swearing'.
April O'Neil is always a nice presence, and never hogs the limelight. The same for resident vigilante Casey Jones, who has a bit of an edge to him, but is a big huggable dolt, who has an instant rapport with Raph. He also shares some good scenes with Donatello too, as they swap insults through the alphabet.
Splinter is the wise mentor and father figure to the Turtles, and has good moments despite being kidnapped disappointingly early. Because of this much of his screentime is minimal, but he does eventually get good scenes with a young street thug. While in the cartoon Splinter was Master Yoshi, here he was his pet. Different incarnations are often flip-flopping over which he is, and both origins work well.
As for the villains, Shredder is an imposing figure, by voice and appearance, and you believe he's a real threat. His second-in-command Tatsu is good too, and has his own character, and relationship with the budding Foot pupils. Said trainees are young runaways, with the son of April's boss getting the most focus. He's a bit of a brat in places, but by the end he proves himself to be pretty good.
The effects in TMNT are standout! The Turtle costumes are lifelike and totally convincing, from how they move to how they talk (besides one horrifying human mouth gaffe, which you may notice only if you're unlucky). The same goes for Splinter, who is so adorable you just wanna hug him, even if he is a rat! Shredder's costume is a little too colourful and glittery in places, but the appearance makes up for it.
The acting here is good all round. Judith Hoag makes for a great human lead, while Elias Koteas is a fun supporting actor. Kevin Clash is wise and friendly as Splinter, and Shredder is portrayed very effectively by James Saito (and voice actor). Meanwhile, a small army of vocal and physical performers portrayed the Turtles, doing a great job bringing them to life.
The action here is very good, with neat fight choreography, and effective locales. Special mention must not only go to the martial arts in its own right, but how these performers managed to pull off these stunts despite the cumbersome turtle costumes! For it to not only still look good, but convincing too is a real marvel.
The setting of New York is an important one to this series, and it shines here, with its sewers, dingy back alleys, high end skyscrapers, and glittery lights. It's also shown in the midst of a crime wave, but it doesn't get too overboard and show NY as being a lawless hellscape.
The lighting in the film is quite dark, but in a pretty effective way. The turtles are ninja after all, and must keep to the shadows. A little more brightness and colour wouldn't have gone astray, but the important thing is we can still see what's going on at all times.
The score in TMNT is great. A particular highlight is the Turtle Power song that plays over the credits. It's lyrically dense hip-hop, with a weird but groovy electronic chorus, that should having you chanting "T U R T L E power!". While I'm not the biggest fan of either genre, it manages to be a darn good tune regardless.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the best adaptions you could ask for, and a perfect companion piece to the animated series
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze (1991)
It's another regular night for the Turtles, who are lodging in April O'Neil's apartment as they search for a new home. Meanwhile, scientific corporation TGRI is publicly disposing of its past hazardous waste, while privately covering up just what its mutagen can do. Taking notice is the Shredder, disfigured but very much alive after his last encounter with the Turtles. He kidnaps the head scientist and forces him to mutate two kidnapped zoo animals, to create enemies capable of stopping the Turtles once and for all...
Secret of the Oooze is an example of a sequel done right! It's got the right amount of humour, action, and heart, and never has a dull moment.
Secret of the Ooze was a movie hit by studio interference. After the first movie's darker and more serious tone, some parents complained (talk about buzzkills!), so not only is this follow-up considerably lighter and goofier, it also lacks the Turtles using their trademark weapons! The first change isn't much of a problem though, since the first one wasn't that dark, and lighthearted goofiness works perfectly well in his franchise.
The plot here is very simple. It is a little difficult trying to connect it with the first movie's ending (How much time is supposed to have passed? Weeks or hours?), but for the most part this is easily overlooked. The TCRI Corporation (or TGRI here) is decently handled, and I liked how the film deliberately chooses to not make it a big conspiracy. Although on the other hand I do miss some of the greater story detail that's absent now that the whole thing was just a random mistake 15 years ago.
While it's not badly written, my big issue with the plot here is that it doesn't go anywhere...literally! The Shredder stays in the same dingy junk yard the whole movie, with the turtles simply moving back and forth a couple of times. It makes things feel a bit too small scale. Fine for an episode, but not so much for a movie
The final confrontation does branch out a bit, with a fun nightclub battle, followed by a pier, providing a great location for the big fight! Unfortunately the battle with the Super Shredder is beyond disappointing! He goes down in a matter of seconds, with almost no work from the heroes.
The Turtles are reliably fun heroes as always. Their personalities do blend together a bit here, but overall they're good, and each get some nice moments. April and Splinter are a bit on the sidelines at times, but don't feel underused.
Shredder once again makes for a good villain, holding a more personal grudge against the Turtles this time. His fascination with the mutagen is good, especially when he goes all the way and uses it on himself. Tatsu also returns, but is unable to really step into the limelight this time, with the Shredder returning almost immediately.
There are a few new characters. Dr. Perry is likeable enough, and surprisingly honest and not sinister. Wisecracking pizza boy Keno is a good addition, but pretty superfluous, and vanishes constantly. New mutants Tokka and Rahzar are fun adversaries. Some fans bemoan the absence of cartoon staples Bebop and Rocksteady, but I feel that these two work better for this story. To have Bebop and Rocksteady would mean to introduce two new characters on top of everyone else. Tokka and Rahzar though are mutated animals, not people, so there's not that same problem.
The score here is just as good as the first. As for the songs, the most notable is Ninja Rap, sung by a certain rapper of ill repute. Now, I'm not a fan of Vanilla Ice by any means (annoying plagiaristic dickhead!), but I do admit finding Ninja Rap to be a decently enough tune, and fits the movie well.
The cast once again do a good job, from David Warner and Ernie Reyes Jr. as the new human cast, to new April Paige Turco. It's a little weird seeing a familiar role recast at first, but she slips into the role comfortably before long. Same goes for the new voice cast for the Turtles.
The effects continue to be standout! The costumes and their expressions/movements are so seamless you often forget they're not really turtles.
TMNT II: Secret of the Ooze has a few diminishing returns, but is overall a good time. Its faults don't detract too much from what's an otherwise fun action movie...
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993)
The Turtles are having a fun time as usual down in their sewer home, when April comes bearing gifts. For Splinter is an ancient Japanese sceptre, which soon proves to be more than just an old keepsake when it transports her to Feudal Japan. In her place is Prince Kenshin, who is just as confused as the Turtles. After they realise what's happened, they make plans to go back in time to rescue April, and to stop the cruel Lord Norinaga and foreign arms dealer Walker from dominating the land...
Turtles in Time has a reputation as not only being a step down, but as an outright bad film! People really rail on it, like it's one of the peaks of trash cinema! I went in nervously, hoping I'd like it, but obviously figuring it'd be bad...So colour me surprised when I immediately began enjoying myself!
The film has a good story. It takes itself seriously enough, but has enough goofy moments to appeal to younger viewers. Much of the emotion comes from how the Turtles react to this new time period, and the people in it. It's nice seeing them get to experience the ancient home of ninjitsu first-hand. I wish we get more backstory on the sceptre though. A bit of mystery is good, but as it is it kinda feels a bit random.
One of the big points of contention people have with the movie is the concept-How unfitting it is for the series, and how it takes NYC out of the equation. It is true we have a new setting this time, but that's ok, we just had two films set in New York, and there'd be many more to follow (well, theoretically). It can't hurt to branch out with something different at least once. And as for how well it fits, it's perfectly fine! I can't think of a single iteration of the turtles, not even the original gritty comics, who haven't gone back in time to Feudal Japan!
The final act contains some good standoffs and decent action, with a fun end for the villain, as well as a fitting punishment for the Lord. It's not all good though, with one particular offending moment. Walker and his small army have the turtles at their mercy, not only with dozens of guns trained on them, but a cannon. Walker fires it, and the turtles duck into their shells to dodge...after which he is convinced they're unbeatable, and the entire army drops all their weapons and runs away! Geez, talk about a disappointment. It's not like you think it's magic, you can see what happened, so just try again! It feels like a very weak moment.
The ending itself is quick, but satisfying. My only real complaint is that we get no final scene with April and Casey. Splinter's final moments certainly are something though!
The comedy here is exactly what you expect. Much of it works, some of it doesn't, it does get a bit childish at times, etc. At its worst I never found it painful or unfunny.
The turtles are once again good heroes. They're fairly basic, rattling off some corny 90s slang, and kicking shell. Where they get some depth comes from their new surroundings, mamely Raphael and Michelangelo! It's the most jokey and hip turtle who feels most at home in the past, and is the biggest arguer for wanting to stay. While Raphael feels at peace in this time in a way he hasn't in the present.
Another ally for the gang is westerner Whit, who bears a striking resemblance to Casey Jones. He soon turns traitor, a spy for Walker, but then switches sides again. It's a little unearned (I can imagine him thinking 'I knew you were gonna kill them, but I didn't think you would kill them, how barbaric!'), and he doesn't get a final scene, just helping out a little in the final fight, before slinking off. He's never mentioned again, nor is his resemblance ever discussed with Casey. The fact that his presence doesn't even give further depth to the April-Casey relationship is the biggest problem in my eyes.
The villains are pretty good. Lord Norinaga is your typical fuedal villain, determined to conquer the land, while Walker is a more pragmatic and cunning guy, ballsy enough to extort the Lord, and eliminate him if necessary. I liked the little touch of him and his pet birds, too.
Splinter doesn't have as big a role as I'd have liked ,but he gets some good moments, including an ending gag that you'll either love or hate. Casey is pretty laidback here, and spends all his screentime babysitting Japanese 'castaways'. It is disappointing to see a fan favourite character reduced to a pretty thankless role, but it is fun at least seeing him basically on holiday from his usual intense crimefighting. Then there's the young prince, who has an important connection to the story, but spends the entire movie separated from it.
The cast are fine. The turtles sound even goofier this time, with a few familiar voices, and some newer new ones. They're fine, even if they take a bit of getting used to, and get a few emotional moments to balance out their more obnoxious ones. Paige Turco is once again a good April O'Neil. Elias Koteas gets his biggest yet smallest role in the series. As Casey he barely appears, but his appearances as Whit are more substantial. He does alright, though the writing lets him down. Stuart Wilson is a fine villain, who is evil and British enough to be successful. Japanese genre stalwart Sab Shimono brings plenty of gravitas no matter the film.
The effects are a possible complaint some might have with Turtles in Time. For a start, they're all in order, and move convincingly. They look just as different from the second film as that did from the first, and it can be distracting getting used to these redesigned turtle models, especially the new Splinter. The eyes are especially googly in places, and their blotchy/freckled skin is strange. I got used to them all fairly quickly, and they're not bad, but I'd still class them as my least favourite design of the trilogy.
The soundtrack here is decent, with a mix of typical heroic tunes, and Japanese infused pieces. The ending song this time round is a fairly decent hip-hop track, followed by a dash of Baltimora. We all need Tarzan Boy in our lives!
The direction here is neat! There's a great eye for visuals, and colours too, with some basic reds and blacks merging perfectly, like an old Japanese painting. The location work is all good too, showing pretty countryside and feudal castles, with a bit of NYC thrown in just so we don't feel too deprived.
Despite the possibility of more sequels, Turtles in Time spelled the end of the live action TMNT series. I don't think it was all to do with the film's negative reception, but a combination of things. The country had been in the grip of a manic Ninja Turtles fever for 7 years at this point, and it was finally starting to wear off. Add to this a pretty disastrously received live action TV show, and you had a world which had had enough of the Turtles. The franchise would go a little quiet for a few years, before returning with the acclaimed 2003 remake, and a CGI movie in 2007 that's ostensibly a follow-up to the original trilogy.
On one hand I think it's a shame this series couldn't continue. I also think it's a shame the entries we got couldn't be a bit more consistent across the board. But if nothing else, we got a full trilogy, and I think they're all winners! That's certainly better than nothing, and they are a perfect introduction to the world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!...