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It’s almost 35 years since Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman put pencil to page on their bizarre spoof of the 80s comic book zeitgeist, creating what is undoubtedly the strangest billion-dollar pop culture phenomenon of all time. Parodying the teenage mutants of the X-Men, the harsh vigilantism of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and pop culture’s general fetishization of New York City, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles grew from a one-note joke to creating some of the most oddly heartwarming heroes in comic book history. After the leviathan-like success of the Saturday-morning cartoon series (try and tell me you can’t still sing that theme tune all these years later), it came as no surprise that a live-action film series soon followed. What was surprising however, was how much closer that initial film veered to the character-driven (you heard me) source material, rather than the goofy science-fiction of the cartoon. Irish director Steve Barron, fresh from his work on the music videos for ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Take On Me’ brought the Turtles to life in a way no one was expecting, making them almost as multi-dimensional as the elaborate Jim Henson animatronics housed in their Turtle-masks. And while the visual effects that bring the Turtles to life obviously look dated in 2018, the magic of the Muppeteer gives them an honest-to-goodness soul that no callous CGI effort could hope to replicate (much as Michael Bay may say otherwise). I say with no exaggeration that there are scenes in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ as beautiful as any Guillermo Del Toro film.
The film’s sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze doubles down on the humour and slapstick, resulting in a film that feels neatly tied to the original, but is undoubtedly inferior for its lack of honesty. That being said, the score is tremendous and there is a tangible ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ feeling that keeps the film from ever being boring. The opening scene riffs on the NYC cliché of everyone (literally everyone) being gluttonous pizza-eaters. Meanwhile. a scene (so often referenced it barely warrants a mention) near the end of the film sees the Turtles stumble into a Vanilla Ice concert (curiously located in a warehouse adjacent to Shredder’s evil lair?!) where they proceed to join Mr. Ice onstage for a freestyle Turtle Rap. It goes without saying that it’s one of the greatest moments ever committed to celluloid – all sense gives way to this tubular throwdown, all reason surrenders to this radical rock-out of righteousness. Clearly, Vanilla Ice feels the same way – he still feels so strongly about his efforts on TMNT 2 that he feels the newer films lack the magic of what it means to be a true ninja.
Tragically, the third film in the series (and the loose subject of this 25-year retrospective) somehow lacks the humanity and visual ingenuity of the first and the madcap lunacy of the second. It’s an utterly boring, workman-like film that is almost universally uninteresting and understandably represented the beginning of the end for the Turtles phenomenon (at least its initial stint – it’s been revived several times over the decades, never quite enjoying the global dominance it had in the 80s and early 90s). Unlike the second one which is so-bad-it’s-good, this one is merely bad in a pathetic, barely watchable sense of the word.
First and foremost, with Jim Henson’s Workshop no longer being involved with the animatronics, the Turtles look shit – their previously expressive eyes are suddenly creepy and golf ball-like, their complexion is a harsh puke-green that makes them look diseased and the series’ admirable attempt at lip-syncing is all but thrown out the window. Master Splinter lacks any of the gravitas he had in the previous films, and resembles something approaching a sock puppet in this one. Furthermore, like so many sequels in series that have run out of ideas, the “let’s send them on holiday” premise is trollied out. Using some thinly-explored time travel mechanics the Turtles are sent back to feudal Japan. There they must do battle with Lord Norinaga (a generic Samurai-movie villain played by veteran character actor Sab Shimono) and his seedy English associate Walker (RADA alum-turned B-list Hollywood heavy Stuart Wilson of Lethal Weapon 3 fame) for some reason, all while debating whether the more inviting landscape of the past is superior to the harsh Turtle-fearing culture of modern-day NYC. The wonderful Elias Koteas (one of the highlights of the first film) is crowbarred into the film in ways that feel like his character was added during reshoots (if you look closely, he is rarely seen in the same shot as an actor in a Turtle costume). The only truly memorable casting in the film is Corey Feldman returning as the voice of Donatello (he missed out on Turtles 2 as he was in rehab).
Somehow, various clichéd chase scenes, slapstick-filled battles and exchanges of wit (sic) manage to fill 90 dull-as-sewerwater minutes before the Turtles have to return to present-day NYC. The third film marks a huge missed opportunity to mine what was at that point a wonderfully weird mythology. While the filmmakers probably lacked the rights to some of the characters exclusive to the cartoon (such as Bebop and Rocksteady or Krang), there was still an awful lot to take directly from the comics (mad scientist Baxter Stockman would have been easily immortalised – Billy Dee Williams was surely available!). Instead, the filmmakers squandered a $21 million budget (very respectable for 1993) on a film so forgettable, it barely warrants a mention.
While there is very little discernible quality of note to be found in TMNT 3 (great missed opportunity to call it TMN3), it is worth a mention that the Super Nintendo game Turtles in Time released a year or two prior to the film was and is pretty great – rather than merely featuring the pedestrian boringness of feudal Japan, the Turtles travel to every corner of the fourth dimension. Also, the recent IDW comic series (also entitled Turtles in Time) did a great job of adapting and retelling the basic concept of 3, creating a far more compelling story. In fact, anyone who liked the TMNT as a child should read the IDW reboot comics – they combine nostalgic elements from the comics, the cartoon and the movies and create a world far more enjoyable for an older (but still young-at-heart) audience. Plus, they did a crossover with Batman which is the raddest thing that has ever happened ever. Ultimately, while the third film is a dud, it only serves to cement how special the initial two still are, both as nostalgic throwbacks to a simpler time and as legitimately entertaining superhero films. They’re silly and campy, but in exactly the right way. Turtley watchable.