When I was a child, going to the movies was a pretty big deal. It didn’t happen often so when it did it felt like a special occasion. Most of the Disney films of the late 80s and 90s were seen by me at home. Batman, Ghostbusters, every Back to the Future movie- all films I saw on VHS instead of in a movie theater. Movie rentals were cheaper and more convenient so I totally see why a family of four would see few films in a theater, especially when one considers the varying tastes that exist between children and adults. One movie I most definitely did see in theaters was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990. That was an event for a child like me and my parents apparently recognized that fact and took my sister and I. They did not take us to the sequel and I had to hear about characters like Tokka, Rahzar, and Super Shredder from kids on the playground before finally seeing the film after Christmas 1992 when I received the VHS as a gift. 1992 was also the year my parents uprooted our family to move from New Hampshire to Virginia. It was a big move as we were leaving our friends and family and the only people we would know were the other families being uprooted for the same reason – work. My dad’s job relocated and that’s what you did. We gave it a shot, but by the late spring of 1993 we were already making our way back north because it just wasn’t working. Maybe because we had so little to do on weekends and because my parents constantly felt bad about moving us, we went to the movies the weekend of March 19th of 1993 and if you know your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or just looked at the subject line for this post) then you know why we were at the movie theater that weekend.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is rather infamous for the franchise. It arrived when the initial wave of Turtle-Mania was really starting to subside. The first film was released in 1990, little more than 2 years after the cartoon debuted and roughly a year after the franchise really took off. The sequel was fast-tracked for a 1991 release, and while it was catered more towards a young audience, it failed to match the box office of the first one. It still made plenty of money though and everyone who had a stake in the franchise felt they could get at least another film out of it. Seemingly planning for a lower return, the budget was slashed and the film was allowed to be a soft reboot. There was no Shredder, no Foot Clan, and barely any New York! Would it work? Would kids continue to show up for their green-skinned heroes?
For me, personally, 1993 was the year I moved away from TMNT. Christmas of 1992 was the Christmas of Super Nintendo for me and I probably received more toys based on Batman Returns than TMNT. By the spring, I was fully onboard with X-Men and that was my preferred toyline with distractions also coming from the Batman: The Animated Series line and Transformers Generation 2. That summer, I would buy my last TMNT toys from Playmates until the 2003 line was launched. The honor fell to the Turtle Trolls which I just thought were neat for some reason. I also got the ninja-action Raphael who could perform a very poor backflip. I bought that figure because it had more of a Mirage style to the toy and I mistakenly thought the turtles were growing up with me, but that was not to be. As I sat in my chair at the theater in March of ’93, I can remember being excited. I had a big bag of popcorn on my lap, a giant soda in the cupholder beside me, and I was just waiting for the lights to go down and for the trailers to start. As I sat there, a boy came stumbling up the ramp towards my aisle seat with his hand over his mouth. Vomit soon starting squirting out from in between his fingers and the dam burst soon after. It fell to the floor maybe 10 feet away from me. The ushers and other staff of the theater did as good a job as they could cleaning that mess up, but there was no covering that vaguely sweet with a hint of tang odor which would permeate throughout the entire showing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.
Sitting through a vomit-scented theater to watch this film probably feels oddly appropriate to many. Truly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is not thought of well. It’s been so poorly received over time that it’s basically been retconned as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time to seemingly capitalize on the affection people have for the completely unrelated video game. As a kid, I liked it enough and I would even spend some of my birthday money that summer on a VHS copy of the movie. And I do recall watching it quite a bit, but at some point my appetite for the movie did wane. Now, just a little over 30 years removed from the original release, I feel like it’s time to go back with fresh eyes and give the movie its due. And personally, it seems like the appropriate way to celebrate my 1,000th entry on this blog. Yes, this is post number 1,000 and we’re dedicating it to the cinematic masterpiece Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was written and directed by Stuart Gillard who had previously directed Paradise (1982) and The Return of the Shaggy Dog. Returning for their third tour of the franchise as the voices of Michelangelo and Leonardo respectively were Robbie Rist and Brian Tochi. After skipping out on the sequel, Corey Feldman was back as Donatello while Raphael got his third voice in as many films from Tim Kelleher. Paige Turco was back to reprise her role as April O’Neil and also returning was Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, a character written out of the sequel because he was deemed too violent. James Murray took over as the voice of Splinter, and we’ll get to the why very soon, while we have a bunch of new villains and supporting cast brought onboard as well.
By far, the biggest change from the first two films to the third is the choice to go with All Effects Company for the costumes and puppetry over The Jim Henson Company. Likely due to the film’s lower budget, All Effects had the unenviable task of taking over for the company best known for creature effects and the change was obvious. The turtles now have a mostly uniform look with their own personal features basically cast aside. They’re still mostly the same shade of green, have the same colors applied to the bandanas and various pads, and still retain the freckles. They just look all together more fake. The masks especially look more like helmets with mouths on them. The nuance in the mouth movement seems to be reduced in favor of just flapping beaks and the costumes themselves look more like rubber suits than before. There’s no warmth to the look of the characters and they more resemble the live shows than the first two films. Not helping matters is we’ve largely abandoned the sewers for this film in favor of bright, outside, shots that do no favors for the costumes. Splinter is also a new puppet and he looks decidedly worse and it’s likely the switch in companies that accounts for Kevin Clash being out as the voice of the character.
The other major change for the third film is with the antagonist. Shredder was seemingly killed off at the end of The Secret of the Ooze, and rather than bring in a new leader for The Foot Clan, the film just chose to ignore them all together. Instead, we get a time travel story where April, after buying a weird scepter at a flea market, gets sucked into feudal Japan and replaced by a man from that era by the name of Kenshin (Henry Hayashi). Unfortunately for April, Kenshin is caught in the middle of warring factions lead by his dictator of a father Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) and a collection of rebels lead by a woman named Mitsu (Vivian Wu). Mitsu is also Kenshin’s lover so he has a vested interest in ending the conflict with as little bloodshed as possible, but his father is uncooperative and pretty angry to see his son replaced by a strange woman. He’s also being influenced by a tradesman by the name of Walker (Stuart Wilson) who is essentially profiting off of the war and has a vested interest in keeping it up. April, upon being thrust into the past, is mistaken for a witch and imprisoned. The turtles need to go back and save her as Donatello, through some sort of plot magic, is able to infer that they only have 60 hours to do so. And to make things simple, time will move in sync between the two periods as the four brothers are replaced by four honor guards when they travel back leaving Casey and Splinter to keep them (and Kenshin) occupied.
Much of the film takes place in 1603 Japan. There, the turtles have to tangle with the bad guys, join up with the good guys, and figure out a way home. We get scenes of the locals mistaking them for kappa, turtle demons from Japanese folklore, and the turtles have to win them over by saving their lives – routine stuff. The people of the era do speak Japanese, but also English so the kids don’t have to read subtitles. Like the first sequel, the action is fairly light and mostly comedic in nature. The turtles rarely use their weapons and would rather attack with witty remarks than fists. And how witty those remarks play up will vary by age. As a kid, Donatello dropping a random Addams Family reference was funny, but as an adult it feels so forced. It’s just completely random, have a turtle reference something else that’s popular in the moment, and play it off for laughs. The only clever jokes involve the ones where characters from the past interact with technology from the future. April’s Walkman freaks out the first guards she runs into while the soldiers sent to the present are completely baffled by television and even take a liking to hockey because of its violence.
The sets for the film are adequate. We get the lair for the turtles which strongly resembles that of the one from the previous film and even looks like it’s been more lived-in since we last saw it. The stuff in Japan is largely relegated to open, outdoors, areas with some interior shots here and there. There’s a fair amount of grime added to some sequences and it’s not a terrible film to look at, excepting the less than stellar turtle costumes. The actors outside of those costumes also really give it their all. Turco is allowed to exhibit far more range than she did in the prior film where she felt almost out of place, like a character that didn’t belong. Koteas is terrific in his dual role of Casey and Whit, a character in the past. I don’t know why they cast Koteas twice, but maybe he was going to cost so much as Casey and they wanted to get their money’s worth. The film doesn’t try to hide that Casey and Whit resemble each other, it just doesn’t bother to explain why. Stuart is actually pretty terrific as the villainous Walker to the point where I feel almost bad for him since it’s wasted on this film. And for what it’s worth, the voice actors for the turtles do a fine enough job. Feldman is a bit overexposed as Donatello as I guess the film decided he was the biggest star, though he does have a solid deadpan which helps a few jokes land better than most. Michelangelo gets to do more than just be a goof off as he questions why he’d want to leave a time period where people accept him to return to a sewer in the present. The neutering of Raph is continued as he isn’t really allowed to get mad anymore and Leonardo is far more jokey than we’re used to because I guess someone decided he was too boring. All of the turtles feel like they’ve been brought closer together as far as their personalities go to the point where they’re almost a hive mind at this point. Basically, the only thing separating the four now is that Donatello is still written to be the smart one while also still being a quip machine.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is not a good movie. This post is not in defense of it. I do have a perhaps “hot” take when it comes to this film though and it’s that I actually enjoy it more The Secret of the Ooze. That movie is just plain bad. The costumes are terrific, but pretty much everything else about it sucks. This movie, on the other hand, is a somewhat entertaining bad movie. The script is so terrible, mostly the stuff fed to the turtles, that it’s laughably bad. Donatello literally does the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” bit and we even get a Wayne’s World reaction to April’s bare leg out of the turtles. It’s stupid, lazy, and oh so dated so it has a certain charm for someone like me who lived through it. For today’s kid it won’t have the same appeal, but I bet they won’t like any of the TMNT movies much because they are just not movies written for today’s audience. We live in a world where there’s only one good, theatrically released, movie based on the franchise and it’s the original from 1990. None of the films that followed are really any good. The Secret of the Ooze is just a lazy sequel while the third film is the dying gasp of a fading franchise. The fourth film, which is technically a sequel to this, came out in 2007 and has no heart and looks cheap. It has one good scene and the rest is bad. The films that followed are just pure trash and now we pin our hopes on a team helmed by Seth Rogen to restore the turtles to their former glory. And I plan on seeing that film when it arrives later this year and I hope it joins the lonely ranks of “Good” TMNT movie. At the very lest, I hope it can usurp Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III for the title of second best because that is a distinction no franchise should be content with.
Check out some of these other posts on the TMNT film franchise:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
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