A Cinefessions Series Review is a periodic column that sees one more writers watching and reviewing an entire film series. Cinefessions considers any film franchise that has two or more films a series, and thus available for review in this column. This is an excellent way to get a quick look at an entire collection of films in one column. Today, Chris puts on those rose-colored glasses and visits a childhood favorite in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.
To say that I’m excited for the brand new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film would be an understatement. I grew up on the old school cartoon, and still own all of the original figures, even that elusive April O’Neil figure. It’s to the point where any time my brother sees any TMNT meme online he instantly tags me in it. So to prepare for this new film – which I admit looks completely awesome – I’ve decided to re-watch the entire series in order, and including the TMNT animated film, which is considered the fourth film by the fans.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, dir. Steve Barron)
I remember getting the VHS of this and watching it over and over. I knew every line and loved the film to death. It’s been a good seven years or so since I’ve seen it, and I just picked up the trilogy on Blu-ray, so I was stoked to revisit this.
I just can’t fathom how my young brain handled so much downtime in a TMNT film. This one moves slowly, mainly when at the farmhouse. And now that I think about it, I may have fast-forwarded through that section a lot as a kid.
The film tells the story for four turtles, transformed by ooze that made them bigger, and gave them the ability to talk. Their master is Splinter, a rat who happens to know their arch nemesis, The Shredder, very well. Each turtle has his own characteristics. Donatello, my personal favorite, is the scientist of the group. Leonardo is the over-thinking “leader”. Raphael (Ralph) is the badass that follows the beat of his own drum, and Michaelangelo is the wisecracking goofball.
One night, Ralph saves news reporter April O’Neil while she is off covering a recent string of crimes. Hell, we even get Casey Jones in this film, and he is, of course, awesome with his bat. Based more on the comics than the animated series, the film does a great job of keeping a dark feel to it while still being lighthearted at times, and that’s thanks to the turtles and their camaraderie.
Sadly, the film doesn’t really hold up as well as it should. The turtle suits look a bit rough. The Blu-ray transfer has a lot of grain in it, and I really don’t know why they couldn’t clean it up a little better. The action feels a little stiff by today’s standards, and isn’t over the top crazy like today’s martial arts films.
Still, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offers a fun story, outside of the terrible plotline involving April’s boss’ son, and it’s just great seeing the turtles come to life. There are some great one-liners, and some really memorable scenes, namely the fall of Shredder.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991, dir. Michael Pressman)
Something weird happened in the early ‘90s when it comes to sequels. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is one of the oddest sequels to come out, and TMNT II, while not as strange, does rank up there a bit.
Secret of the Ooze continues where the first film left off. Shredder is thought to be dead, Casey Jones has vanished for the entire film, and the Turtles pretty much live with April now. Toss in an Asian sidekick, and you can only start to imagine how this film will turn out. The idea, though, is that we find out where the ooze came from that created the Ninja Turtles. We find out that Shredder isn’t dead, and that he wants this ooze to create creatures of his own.
Now, this is where fans of the cartoon and comic can be separated. We do not get Bebop and Rocksteady ala the cartoon, but instead get Rahzar and Tokka, both from the comics. I never read the comics, but my young brain didn’t care because they were still pretty cool, and, frankly, I probably thought they were Bebop and Rocksteady anyway.
This time around the film tosses its dark background out for a more comical affair. It’s clear from the opening scene in the mall, which sees the turtles play with toys while battling crooks. Ernie Reyes Jr. plays Keno, our new Asian sidekick, and thankfully he never becomes overly annoying like most sidekicks, but he is no Casey Jones.
The film runs along smoothly until the big finale, where we get a cool twist on Shredder, and, of course, the now “classic” Vanilla Ice rap song during the club fight scene, which is where the film just gets too weird for its own good.
I almost enjoy Secret of the Ooze more than the original, but in the next breath, I enjoy the darker tone of the original film more. Both are different styles, though, and I really don’t know why they went with the less serious tone for this one.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993, dir. Stuart Gillard)
In just two short years they were able to dump the third, and what many thought, final Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film onto the world. I hated this movie as a kid, and re-watching it now makes me realize I must have been pretty smart because this is a terrible movie.
The Turtles are transported back to Feudal Japan via a magical scepter. The catch is that if one person goes back, another goes to the present time, so it’s more of a body swap. The Turtles and April end up in the past, while Casey Jones (YES!) and Splinter babysit some half-naked samurai (boo!).
In theory, this is a great idea. It’s even roughly based off an idea from the comics, but it’s just executed so poorly. Hardly any of the cast has returned from the second film, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop no longer does the creature designs, which is obvious by how poor they are.
TMNT III really tries to be funny, but fails. When it tries to be serious, it fails. It’s such a poor script that I’d say I’m almost surprised by it being made, but the turn around for these films were fast, with only a year gap between the first two. It’s clear that the extra year for this third entry was because they couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do.
This one looks decent enough, and the return of Casey Jones is great, but even he is wasted. It is nice, though, that Paige Turco returns as April from the second film. The oddest thing about this film? Corey Feldman as Donatello!
TMNT (2007, dir. Kevin Munroe)
After a fourteen-year hiatus, we get an “unofficial” fourth film in the series. Long gone are the humans with big rubber suits, and in their place is a beautifully rendered CGI experience. In a time when rubber suits just won’t cut it, the smartest thing they could have done to revive the series was to make it an animated CGI film.
The Turtles have defeated Shredder, but in the aftermath, have grown apart from each other. Leo goes to South America to find himself, while Mickey and Don create their own businesses. Meanwhile, Ralph sleeps all day, as he’s a masked vigilante at night. April O’Neil and Casey Jones are now dating, and seemed to have lost a few years, as they appear younger than ever. A greedy businessman awakens four ancient guardians and unleashes thirteen creatures unto New York City. Now the Turtles need to reconnect and save the city once again.
What TMNT does right is that it captures the perfect mix of the grittiness from the comics, and the comedic aspects from the other source materials. In many ways, the film is the best of the bunch, or at least perfectly on par with the original, live-action film.
We get an all-star voice cast of Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kevin Smith, Laurence Fishburne, and Patrick Stewart, which helps bring all of these characters to life. I must admit, though, that I found Chris Evans an odd choice to voice Casey Jones. Fans may also recognize Raphael’s voice as that of Nolan North.
While the move to CGI was a great one, it’s also the films biggest problem. It is seven years since it was released, and while the Turtles still look great, and the action scenes look fantastic in motion, everything else is just a mixed bag. The backdrops feel blank and lifeless, there are no details on the walls, and so on. It is just a blank slate, and it feels unfinished by today’s standards. The humans also look a little funky and flat.
After re-watching the terrible third film, there is no way TMNT could have been worse, and it’s not. The plot, while thin, is entertaining, and the creature designs are imaginative and fun. The aged CGI is a big downside to the film, but I have to say it’s right on par with the first film in the series. TMNT is not as dark and moody as the first movie, but it doesn’t alienate those old school fans, either, like many reboots do.
The CSR Awards
(The Cinefessions’ Series Review Awards)
Best Picture: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1991)
It may not have aged as well as I’d hoped, and the slow bits hurt the flow, but it captures the tone perfectly.
Worst Picture: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
Twenty-one years later and I still can’t fathom why or how this film got greenlit with such a poor script. Maybe they were just desperate and wanted to cash in.
Favorite Scene: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) – Raphael vs. Casey Jones
I just love this scene. The music is spot on, the dialogue is fun, and while I’m a big fan of Donatello, this is one of those scenes that makes you realize that Ralph is badass.
Best Actress: Judith Hoag (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
She’s just spot on for what I imagine for April. Her replacement in the second and third film was okay, but not nearly as good.
Best Actor: Elias Koteas (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
I just love his take on the character, and not being in a big rubber suit makes it easier to judge his acting ability. Sure, he didn’t – and won’t ever – win an Oscar for this type of role, but he owns the character in the two films he’s in.
Maybe with my rose-tinted nostalgia glasses off this would have been four god-awful films, but honestly, I think they hold up decently well, all things considered. Far from perfect but almost always entertaining (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III being the exception), this is a fun series to revisit. Hopefully the new reboot will be good. The trailers are giving me mixed feelings, but we’ll find out soon enough!
The average film rating for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series is 2.13.
Chris was raised on horror films, which gave him a deep love for the genre, especially its most quirky and offbeat titles (like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2). This love quickly turned into an obsession for cinema in 1997, when he decided he needed to see every major theatrical release. Video games (JRPGs), reading (anything but fantasy), and reality television (Survivor) are just some of his other passions. He’s been with Cinefessions since 2013, and has been writing reviews all over the internet for the past twelve years.
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