Cowabunga dudes, it’s the 30th anniversary of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie! On March 30, 1990, New Line Cinema together with Golden Harvest released a film to theaters that seemingly no one wanted to make. This isn’t that surprising considering when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first started soliciting offers for a toy-line based on their comic book property there were also few takers. Still, considering how successful the cartoon and toys had become, one would think studios would have learned a lesson from the likes of Mattel and Hasbro in not passing on the property, but the Turtles concept was so uniquely weird that many just weren’t able to accept it as a bonafide franchise.
The Turtles originated in the pages of Mirage comics, but it was the cartoon that really catapulted the franchise to the heights it eventually reached. Despite that, the original film was a nice olive branch to those who first fell in love with the property as a comic. That first film took very little from the cartoon, basically just the colored masks, April’s profession, and an affinity for pizza, and took far more from the comic. The basic plot was lifted almost directly from that source material with just a few changes. The end result was a tonally dark film as the Turtles dwelled in the murky sewers of New York City and did most of their fighting at night. It was also probably a practical choice to obscure the costumes and puppets (in the case of Splinter) a bit to maintain realism. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was brought in to create those wonderful suits and the film holds up pretty well for what it is even today.
The only problem I have with that first film is that I already reviewed it on this blog years ago. With no new media based on the film to talk about here, I’m forced to get a bit creative with my celebration of that film and instead turn to the 1991 sequel. Incredibly, New Line was able to fast track a sequel and have it land in theaters on March 22, 1991 – just days before the first film turned 1! It’s basically another instance of the powers that be having misgivings about the franchise. Everyone assumed the property was a fad and would die out quickly. And while Turtle-mania did probably peak in 1990, it certainly wasn’t dead come 91 and the original cartoon series wouldn’t air its season finale until 1996. Part of the reason the sequel was fast-tracked is because of how few believed in the first film. Even Playmates, holder of the master toy license and party responsible for the creation of the cartoon, passed on creating toys for that film assuming it would bomb. There wasn’t a ton of marketing tie-ins for that film, and even TMNT branded Pork Rinds (as seen in the film) arrived well after the film premiered.
A sequel was basically a way to course-correct for those poor decisions leading up to that first film. The quick turn-around though meant some actors weren’t available for the sequel, and some didn’t return for other reasons. The Casey Jones character was not brought back, though he did return in the sequel to this one. Judith Hoag was also recast as April O’Neil with Paige Turco. It is alleged that Hoag had made a fuss on set of the first film in defense of the stunt actors and that was partly to blame. Since this film has a different director, it could just be he wanted to cast an actress that more resembled the character in the cartoon (something that will impact other areas of the film). Robbie Rist and Brian Tochi return as the voices of Michelangelo and Leonardo, respectively, while Raphael (Laurie Faso) and Donatello (Adam Carl) were recast. Ernie Reyes Jr, a stunt double for Donatello on the first film, impressed the producers enough to get a role in the sequel as a proper actor playing the pizza deliveryman Keno, who understandably crosses paths with the Turtles. Shredder was also recast, now played by Francois Chao and voiced by David McCharen. Kevin Clash is also back as the voice and puppeteer on Splinter.
Director Michael Pressman sought, either on his own or at the urging of other parties, to make this film resemble the cartoon more than the first film had. As a result, co-creators Eastman and Laird had little input on the film. They wanted to continue the story began in Mirage Comics and bring in the scientist Baxter Stockman and have the secret of the ooze match-up with the comic in being alien in origin. Pressman and others apparently disagreed and pretty much the only thing it appears Eastman and Laird got away with was keeping specific elements of the cartoon, such as Bebop and Rocksteady, out. The film downplayed the dark and grime and removed almost all of the violence in favor of slapstick. The Turtles basically never utilize their weapons outside of the opening fight scene, and even there they barely use them. Michelangelo would rather pop bad guys with a yo-yo and sausage links, swung around like nunchaku, and just generally act goofy. Most of the scenes are also brightly lit, and while there’s some conflict between brothers Leo and Raph, it’s hastily done and the stakes feel smaller as Raph no longer comes across as a troubled soul.
For the plot of the film, Pressman and writer Todd Langden take the picture to a pretty logical place. After being dispatched at the end of the first film, Shredder returns rising from a landfill where he was apparently dumped (the NYPD and Sanitation Commission apparently unknowingly dumped a body left in a garbage truck) and has setup shop in a junkyard. His motivation is now simply revenge, but he needs help. For that, he turns to TGRI, the company responsible for creating the ooze that turned four baby turtles and their caretaker rat into the beings we know and love today. He kidnaps TGRI scientist Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner) to enlist him in creating super mutants of his known, settling on a wolf and a snapping turtle he’ll name Rahzar and Tokka (both voiced by Frank Welker), respectively.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be forced to deal with Shredder and his new minions, as well as the remnants of the Foot Clan. Adding to the drama is their search for a new home, having been cooped up in April’s swanky new apartment since the events of the first film. It’s a straight-forward plot that does fine with its modest 88 minute running time. Fans likely expected Shredder to return, as he always does in the cartoon, and while they probably wanted to see Bebop and Rocksteady it wasn’t a surprise to see surrogates in their place. Tokka and Rahzar are surprisingly even dumber than the warthog and rhino as they’re barely intelligible, but balance that out with impressive strength. I know some fans to this day are disappointed the proper duo wasn’t realized here, it’s hard to argue with the end result though as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did an amazing job with both characters.
Henson’s Creature Shop is actually the film’s greatest strength. The Turtles were all re-tooled between films and remain plenty convincing. Michelangelo is basically the only one of the four that looks almost identical to the costume in the first film, as he had expressive eyes in that film while the other three seemed to have their eyes obscured by their masks. Now all four have a more approachable appearance and there’s definitely less grit here. Donatello is the one that looks the most different as his head-shape is completely different. I don’t know why this is the case, but he also feels like the character changed the most in general from film-to-film, possibly to de-emphasize the performance of Corey Feldman or maybe just to nerd him up to bring him more in-line with the cartoon. Shredder’s costume also looks great, and the big surprise at the end (yeah, you probably know what that surprise is, but I’ll still retain some mystery for a 29 year-old film review) also looks pretty great.
Sadly, other than the costumes there isn’t much to like about this film. The script has been punched-up to be far more jokey and all-together less serious. Unfortunately, the script seems to think little of its audience and the jokes barely please 8-year-olds. The only true laugh in this film is one line by Mikey in the junkyard when they first spot the individual they’re looking for. Again, I’m not spoiling anything here. Otherwise, everything else is stupid and predictable. The fight choreography, apparently partly owing to the fact that the new masks had even worse visibility than the originals, is abysmal. The bad guys just stand around to get punched or kicked or hit with some jokey object and the Turtles basically never get hurt. Some complained the first film was too violent, but at least it showed the consequences of that violence. This film does not.
This is also the type of film one watches and just feels bad for the actors involved. David Warner does his best with what he’s given, and he’s actually game for some of the corniness of the script. Turco unfortunately has less to work with while the April character is firmly placed in the backseat for this one. The Keno character feels like an audience surrogate. He’s a teen, but possesses enough child-like enthusiasm to potentially allow kids to relate to him. He’s given some of the worst lines in the film, but again, I can’t really fault the performance of Reyes Jr. for my dislike of Keno. To perhaps no surprise, Keno has never resurfaced in any other media based on this franchise.
I liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II as a kid, and that’s the only audience the movie cared about. I liked seeing my favorite heroes back in a live-action setting, and seeing the new mutants was a trip. I even liked the “Ninja Rap” and I actually have some affection for that even to this day as it’s the moment the movie just says “Screw it, this is what this film is about,” as it embraces it’s corn-ball nature. And the costumes are great, but just about everything else is dumb. All of the things I liked and still enjoy in the original film aren’t here, aside from the costumes. None of the questions that film left open at its conclusion are even addressed here. We don’t know what happened between April and Casey, and we never really get a rematch between Turtles and Shredder. It’s a shame, as the costumed actors (Michelin Sisti, Mark Caso, Kenn Scott, Leif Tilden as the four turtles) are still asked to do some pretty impressive stuff considering all of the gear they’re wearing, but not in a visually interesting manner. As a result, I cannot recommend this movie unless you’ve watched the first film so many times that you’re just desperate to watch something different. Though I hope you will have sense enough to stop here and not go onto the third film.
If you want to watch this film or its much better predecessor (and you should watch that if you’re reading this on the date of publication) you can find all of the original films on Netflix. They’re also available on DVD and Blu Ray and should be quite affordable.