From comic books to cartoons, action figures, and arcade/video games, the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' weren't quite an overnight sensation, though the heights reached by the foursome of shelled warriors were just as high, its followers just as fervent. Any type of tie-in product you can imagine, it existed. Storybooks, Pez dispensers, cereal, ooze containers, toothpaste, every single article of clothing imaginable, bedspreads, Walkmen, that's just the tip of the normalcy barrel, as there are more than a few weirder bits of memorabilia with a green shell attached.
If you can put your creation on any product imaginable, why not make some money at the box office, too? One didn't even have to be truly accurate to the source material, just tap into the culture of the fans of the time, and you'll make hand over fist (with the first film making ten times its budget, easily amounting to a huge success). Three live action films starring the lean mean green fighting machines were made in the 90s, and a recent CGI rendition was created, while a fourth live action film is in the wings.
The 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition box set features each of the first four films starring the anthropomorphic reptiles and their rat sensei. Whether you like turtles still or not, it's time for a blast from the past!
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (3/5) - This ain't no cartoon.
There's a plague consuming New York City. A wave of petty crime. Stereos, wallets, and boomboxes all over the city are disappearing. Youths are turning delinquent, turning on their families, forming a wild throng, a gang of sorts. Their haven is full of smoking, drinking, and video games, and these wild children are being led by two men who may have ulterior motives: Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) and the mysterious, pointy Shredder (played by both James Saito and David McCharen).
But there's more happening in the shadows than random muggings, mullets, and thugging tweeners, as four mutated turtles, which have grown to human height, begin their fight for what is right. With their mutant rat leader Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash) instilling in them sensibilities as well as fighting abilities, these overgrown pets will face their first real challenge from the Foot Clan, the best fighters from Tatsu and Shredder's gang. Along for the ride is street justice server Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) and the sassy WTRL 3 reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag), who has broken the story on the Foot, who are out to silence her for good. Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Rafael may have been named after master artists, but they're going to show that they're master martial artists.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' is a film that certainly disappeared into my memory banks, as watching it again for this review felt almost like the first time I had ever seen it. That doesn't speak well for its memorability, that's for sure, but that strange sense of nostalgia sure makes it quite a hoot to watch this exaggerated state of the early 90s kid culture.
A darker, tougher film would have made sense, considering the comic book origins, the language on display in the film (which was so coarse that there were no toys made to tie-in to the film, to distance Playmates from the moral outrage of a children's movie saying "damn"), and the fairly bleak tale told. It's almost hilarious seeing kids throw around cartons of cigarettes, down booze, and even smoke stogies in their excessive "hide-out"/retreat, full of dance floors, contraband, skateboard ramps, and arcade games. Sure, they want to show these are the "bad kids," but good luck showing a kid smoking a big ass cigar nowadays.
The story is corny, cheesy, with tons of derailment for gags and references (mostly conversations throwing in as many "cowabungas," "radicals," "tubulars," or "excellents!" as possible, quasi-coherently), as well as more than a handful of pizza gags. In fact, it's outright awful how the Turtles react to the thought of pizza in the film, as they're borderline junkies for the dish. But while the heroes are a bit one-dimensional, they're also quite entertaining, as they interact with the world that doesn't know they exist. Sheltered, yet not afraid to throw down, the TMNT are fairly non-lethal, even with two of them sporting sharp bladed weapons, as their large throngs of collected foes can easily regroup since they're not-quite-impaled.
An origin story, establishing the main human and humanoid characters in the series, the first TMNT film is more fan service than it is a workable movie. But the extreme levels of campiness and lovableness, as well as plenty of entertaining fight sequences, and lack of too many boring moments make this a very enjoyable film, regardless of age. It's fairly dumb, even when it's smart, very formulaic, and borderline antique concerning its plot development, but for a fun ride through memory lane, few films are as enjoyable as 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.' It's part guilty pleasure, part pure enjoyment, and all fun.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' (2/5)
After successfully tapping into the culture of the target audience the first time around, the Ninja Turtles return for a sequel that banks more on the success of the first film than it does establish itself as a standalone body of work. We get the same gags, similar fight scenes, with raised stakes, and...Vanilla Ice?!?!
The more things change, the more they stay the same. April (a recast Paige Turco)'s home was destroyed, and the Turtles' lair was discovered, both by the dangerous Foot Clan, so while the Turtles seek out a new home, they find themselves making plenty of noise and eating obscene amounts of pizza at April's new apartment. They're still fighting petty crime from the shadows, thinking that they've seen the last of the menacing Shredder. But it takes more than a garbage truck trash compactor to take out the spiky fiend, as he, along with the Foot Clan, return to take vengeance. Utilizing the same ooze that created the Turtles and Splinter, Shredder has employed a plan to fight freaks with freaks, mutating a pair of vicious animals to do his bidding. The Turtles are forced into yet another confrontation with their greatest foe, and this time, the odds are against them.
When a hugely successful film has a sequel in theaters less than one full year after the bow of the original, the phrase "cash in" may be appropriate, and while the box office total didn't quite reach the heights of the original, 'The Secret of the Ooze' did make a significant amount of dough, proving that quantity can sometimes outweigh quality ('A Nightmare on Elm Street' comes to mind). With recast actors, missing main characters (did Casey Jones OD between adventures?), and some very poor attempts at humor, this is one sequel that suffers tremendously from sequelitis.
The premise of the film is actually great. After seeing the origin story in the original, we venture back to the material that created the Turtles, albeit by accident, through a clumsy environmental subplot about waste dumping. This allows us to demystify the characters, yet at the same time, let them prove that they're more than just radioactive slime offspring, that they have hearts, minds, and souls. It's all in the execution, though, and forcing this film upon people may be considered more cruel than execution.
Instead of bringing the bumbling mutated Foot Clan muscle tandem of Rocksteady and Bebop, the film gives us Tokka and Rahzar, two creature creations that couldn't be any less menacing, due to their goofy appearance. Wow, they're strong, and they're simpletons. Tatsu (Toshiro Obata) does little more than stand around, providing less menace than the all-so-important extras, like Thug #1, Soho Woman, Old Woman, and Audience Man (who turned out to be a young Michael Jai White of 'Black Dynamite' fame). Even the Shredder, our returning baddie, does nothing. He threatens and schemes, wow. You'd think a guy with a suit of armor covered in spikes would, you know, fight. But wait, he magically transforms instantly (while other mutations take their sweet time) into Super Shredder, and becomes Kevin Nash (of WWE/WCW wrestling fame, who was the Russian in 'The Punisher' remake). Uh oh, shit just got real....nevermind. I don't quite get why mutating someone makes their outfit grow more, longer spikes, but whatever, he's a cameo appearance if nothing else, with about a minute's worth of screen time. It's damn choppy.
Fight sequences pull you right out of the environment of the film, due to their cheesy effects and lame gimmicks (a yo-yo and sausage nunchuks?), and the film drags its behind all over the carpet, scooting along, rather than progressing whatsoever. It's nice to see a youthful sidekick to the Turtles, as a young Ernie Reyes Jr. plays the martial arts badass Keno, but he's another character who just disappears, much like April O'Neil does, forgotten in the mix.
Let us not forget that these are supposed to be ninjas. Ninjas don't fight in crowded clubs that have Vanilla Ice singing and dancing in the background, improvising a Ninja Rap (Go ninja, go ninja, go!) as the heroes fight their mutated foes before storming the stage and partying. While this sequel doesn't quite reach 'Cool as Ice' levels of awfulness (and few films do), it teeters dangerously close at times. Lacking heart, spirit, and purpose, other than financial gain, this is a film better left in the past. Nostalgia can make it a good film, but revisiting it certainly can't. The same can be said about Rob Van Winkle and his famous alter ego.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time' (1/5)
Man, something strange happened in 1992. There wasn't a 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' film released theatrically. The horror! Perhaps the whole Vanilla Ice "thing" was a part of that, while less kind reviews, and a smaller take versus a higher cost may have played a hand. It took an extra year to throw together the third 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film,' and I do mean throw together.
How it ever made $42 million, I'll never know. I do suspect a rash of kidnappings of family pets with ransom photos demanding movie stubs in return for their furry buddies, but that's just the optimist in me.
The third Turtles adventure may actually be the first. Maybe. When April O'Neil brings the mutated pets a series of thank you gifts, Splinter's present turns out to be something truly special, a scepter that is capable of time travel....sorta. April is shot back in time a few hundred years, to Japan, where the ways were about to change, from traditional sword fighting to firearms and cannons. The Turtles have to rescue their friend, but will have only 60 hours to do so, before being stuck in the past forever. Meanwhile, Splinter and Casey Jones will have to contend with five displaced Japanese warriors, who came to modern times New York, as the scepter trades people rather than transports them.
I'm sorry, I know this is supposed to be a kid's film, but it's just awful, and is quite possibly the dumbest time-travel film ever made. As characters make wild-ass conclusions based off of pure happenstance science, they always turn out to be 100 percent correct. There's no concern for altering history, whatsoever, and the idea that there were mutated warrior turtles before this set of four mutated warrior turtles arrived is a bit too far-fetched.
For a fish-out-of-water tale (times two, due to both timelines having their awkward new inhabitants) that can be a bit too tedious and forced for its own good, I will give 'Turtles in Time' some points, for the twist on Japanese mythology that it provides. That twist may be the only reason this movie earns any star points whatsoever. It's hard to love a film whose comic references are, and I quote, 'The Terminator,' Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Family Matters, M.C. Hammer, The Addams Family, and Don King. It's lowbrow, only without fart jokes, appealing to what may be the lowest of the low in terms of common denominators.
The Turtles and Splinter are awkward at best, with their suits being upgraded to have way more expressive faces. It backfires, big time, as now the characters look even more cartoony than before. Feudal Japan appears to be a place where sword fighting produces no blood, and no bodies. Gags are repeated ("God, I looo--ooo--ooove being a turtle!!!"), exactly, and the human actors appear more interested in their lunches than they do the story. To be fair, considering the plot, I can't blame them, and would now like to focus my own time on food. Sorry fans, this one takes the most devoted of audiences to be even bearable, let alone enjoyable. A disaster of a disaster, which resembles 'Batman and Robin' very closely, as each killed their respective film franchises for some time, before new entries would put the previous offerings to shame.
'TMNT' - (3.5/5)
The story picks up after the events of the second live action film -- the evil Shredder is dead and the turtles have drifted apart. Their rodent sensei, Splinter (Mako Iwamatsu), is content on keeping them hidden in the sewers while their leader, Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor), has disappeared for extensive training in South America. The remaining ninjas include the intellectual Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield), the laid-back Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), and the angst-ridden Raphael (Nolan North) -- all of whom long to get back to the streets to fight crime once again.
But a new threat begins to emerge -- a wealthy businessman named Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) is employing the ex-captain of Shredder's foot soldiers (Zhang Ziyi) to track down dangerous beasts that have begun to appear in the city. He's also resurrected four generals from an ancient era to gather the beasts for his own purposes. With the help of reporter April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and vigilante Casey Jones (Chris Evans), the turtles must put aside their differences and combat the mounting evil in New York City.
I have to warn you -- I left a lot of plot details out of this summary and yet it still sounds convoluted. Anyone who hasn't followed the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" cartoons or live action films will likely be lost through much of the first act of the film. At only 87 minutes, the filmmakers bizarrely try to cram as much as they can into the story, assuming that everyone understands what's going on. An additional fifteen or twenty minutes could have gone a long way to making 'TMNT' a better film that is more accessible to new audiences.
Even fans of the franchise may have a have a hard time with the film -- especially in its early stages, as 'TMNT' introduces a plethora of new character developments that seem to come out of nowhere. Somehow though, things manage to pull together in the second act and a decent film finds its way onto the screen. Granted, there are plenty of moments that could have been fleshed out, but the characterizations and internal conflicts work well in spite of the fact that I constantly felt as if I was playing catch-up.
But the main thing that saves 'TMNT' from simply being average is the animation. The CG visuals are gorgeous and add a welcome level of realism to the proceedings -- somewhat surprisingly, the film never feels cartoony, even though the stylized character designs clearly draw the majority of their inspiration from the animated TV series. 'TMNT' is a dark film with lots of violence that may scare some younger children, but it really sells the danger and ferocity of the fight scenes.
That being said, CG isn't the only thing that makes the turtles special in this latest outing. For the first time in the history of the franchise, the turtles actually move like ninjas. They're not clumsy men in turtle suits or choppy drawings with little fighting prowess -- they're swift instruments of death, striking fast and hard. As such, the film certainly pushes the boundaries of its PG rating and felt very like a PG-13 flick to me.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Proof that packaging can be both awesome and awful at the same time, the 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' box set is quite a doozy. Housed in a standard sized box, which emulates a pizza box (replete with faux grease stains), the set has two trays, which hold two discs each; one glued to the bottom of the box, one at the top. Each disc looks like a pizza, even the 'TMNT' disc, replacing the existing art from the standalone edition (and that is the only change in the disc). It would have been nice to have four individual cases in this box, as they would actually fit, if we got rid of the goodies.
Ahh...the goodies. This box set includes a knit cap (dubbed a radical beanie, made in China) with the TMNT logo, a comic book that depicts the events of the first movie, a "signed" sketch, and eight oversized character cards.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (3/5)
The first film in the original 'Turtles' trilogy is given a VC-1 encode at 1080p, filling the screen in a 1.78:1 ratio. It's not pretty, by a long shot, but it's far from ugly, too. Much like the shadows are the domain for any self-respecting ninja, the shadows are the domain for one of the larger problems in the film: delineation. The grain levels fluctuate, mostly fiddling around in the thick, detail-obscuring heavy pattern, regardless of lighting, but there are more than a few moments with a soft and easy grain that lets detail shine. When this happens, man, the details on the turtle costumes are fantastic! Sadly, for the majority of the film, we get a hazy look, soft textures, and a real lack of definition, to the point where some moments left me wondering why a few human noses didn't appear to have nostrils. Blacks crush slightly, while there is a small smattering of dirt and debris, noise, and a few bits of edge enhancement noticeable. I was less than pleased with this first transfer, even factoring in the age.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' (3/5)
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' sports another VC-1 codec, still at 1080p in the 1.78:1 frame. The result this time around is improved, though not by much.
Colors are brighter, grain is significantly reduced, allowing more detail to shine through (though there are still a few spikes that are pretty unsightly). There's still some light edge work, as well as black crush, even in the softest of blacks, the wimpiest and tiniest of shadows losing detail. The dark aesthetic for the film doesn't affect color as much as it does detail, with textures sometimes feeling amazingly flat. Noise is slightly increased, and I'll be damned if there weren't a handful of scenes where it was near impossible to distinguish Leonardo and Donatello (as well as Michaelangelo from Raphael), as their bandanas get way too close in tint. Passable for its age, but far from worthy of praise, this transfer just is.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time' (3.5/5)
What a difference a few years makes. 'Turtles in Time' had a slashed budget, and some very, very awful puppet work, but the transfer provided for the film is a step above the others in the series. From the opening shots, beautifully soaked in red, I knew this was going to be a different story from the prior films, and as it gave way to lush colors and a solid scenic landscape, I was thrilled. Grain levels are super light, and never impede detail, though whites are fairly busy and there's a fairly frequent speckle of dirt. The amount of detail on display varies. At times, the Turtles are so clearly defined it's scary, but somewhat often, we get some pretty dull moments, in this occasionally flat transfer. It's a step up, and with more consistency it would have been an amazing waste of a great transfer.
'TMNT' - (4.5/5)
'TMNT' is given a 1080p/VC-1 encode that does an excellent job showcasing the film's CG animation. From the very beginning, a lush color palette and an exquisite level of detail are on full display. I wasn't expecting the animators to pack so many textures onto the screen, but this transfer renders them perfectly. The turtles' skin, Splinter's fur, and even the cracks in their shells are crisp and sharp. Furthermore, environmental details add depth to the picture and populate the screen with grime that gives the city a realistic quality that enhances the imagery.
Want your jaw to drop? Skip to the scene where Leo fights Raph atop a neon-lit building in the rain -- note the droplets of water as they splash on the turtles and cascade to the ground. Even better, black levels and contrast are dead on (as they are throughout the film) and the flicker of the lights make this one of the most impressive high-def scenes I've had the pleasure of watching. The entire image is much darker than one might expect from an animated film, but it provides the picture with dimension that crafts a considerable illusion of depth.
The only technical downside to the transfer is that there are several instances of color banding -- most noticeably in nighttime scenes when large expanses of the sky are visible overtop the city. This is a subtle distraction in an otherwise top notch visual presentation. As you would expect, the transfer is grain free and I didn't catch any instances of other noise or artifacting. Compared to the standard DVD, this Blu-ray transfer offers a significant upgrade in color saturation and detail that comes very close to making 'TMNT' a reference level animated high-def release.
Bad puns, dated costumes, and seriously bad hair may work against the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' films, but the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix doesn't. The three discs comprising the original trilogy autoplay, and the default tracks are lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track (boo!), but a quick pause and adjust fixes all problems. Shouldn't have ever been a problem, but hey, these discs were from before this situation was resolved.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' - (3.5/5)
The dialogue comes through crisp and clear, reminding you of those awkward days when radical meant more than being an extremist, holding up through the years to be clearly prioritized, even if it is very front heavy. Rears get their share of activity, surprisingly, as the bumping soundtrack and plenty of random ambience fill the room, even if not consistently. Bass levels are somewhat overstated, a dominant element when it gets going, but it's really pretty fun to hear the bump in this throwback film. Localization is used sparingly, but for a few moments, it's there. My main gripe is the way the high ends sound in this mix, but for a twenty year old film, I was very pleasantly surprised.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' (2.5/5)
The audio for 'The Secret of the Ooze' takes a slight step back from the original 'Turtles' film, mostly due to the surprising softness of the bass, as well as the drop in activity in rear speakers. As surprised as I was by the sheer amount of action in the first film, in all channels, I was even more surprised to see the second film completely lacking such a quality. The corny soundtrack hits all angles just fine, though rear music is a bit too soft. Fight scenes have no problem with prioritization, with dialogue always coming through over impact noises, cheesy effects, and background tracks, and sometimes (not always) have lots of random background shuffling and shouting. The entire mix is very soft, far too quiet, bordering on wimpy, even with a high volume setting. Though not the fault of the mix, Tatsu's dub is horrendous, especially due to a poor synch. A let down.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time' (4/5)
If I had my way, a track this good would have accompanied one of the two better films in the live action trilogy. Instead, it graces this...this...thing. Ah well. 'Turtles in Time' has a very robust, pleasing audio mix, with solid prioritization, some very hefty bass, from the very start of the film, and some nice, albeit sparse bits of localization and movement. The light ambience in the rears is believable, and perfectly fitting of the scenes, unlike the other two films. Sure, there's a slight hiccup early, as the word "disgrace" at the 7:46 mark is marred, but all in all, this is a lively, active little track that deserves some amount of recognition.
The film still stinks.
'TMNT' - (4.5/5)
The rich Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio mix pushes most scenes to their limit. The track's dynamics are the first thing I noticed and it's clear that the sound designers have produced a mix with unwavering highs and rumbling lows. Dialogue is well-prioritized in the soundscape, and effects produce convincing impacts across the channels. To the mix's great credit, the rear speakers get quite lively throughout the film and inject a healthy dose of ambiance and street noise into the soundfield. Channel movement is swift and natural, accuracy is on point, and the score has a subtle interplay with the rest of the soundscape.
The mystical elements in the film are accompanied by an immersive hum in the soundfield that gives the villains a hefty presence. This sort of mood-switching in the mix adds to the tone of the film, but it also demonstrates the power of a TrueHD track that's backed up by proper sound design. Sword clangs and staff strikes hit the ear naturally, without resorting to artificially peaking the effects. Likewise, the smash and crash of breaking environmental elements is delivered across multiple channels to provide the mix with power -- an appreciated alternative to some mixes that simply increase an effect's volume to trick listeners into hearing more "oomph" in a sound.
The only issue I had was minor -- like most animated films, the quality of the sound effects in 'TMNT' can sound a bit stagey at times. Some may defend the track since it's essentially built for a cartoon, but every other element of the film had a distinct realism despite the stylized animation. As such, I found these occasional cartoony sound effects out of place. It's a small complaint to be sure (and not really a technical issue with the mix), but one that distracted me frequently enough to mention it.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' - (.5/5)
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' (.5/5)
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time' (.5/5)
'TMNT' - (1.5/5)
First up is an overly technical commentary with writer/director Kevin Munroe that, quite frankly, bored me to no end. Considering the pop-culture status of the original cartoon, Munroe spends virtually no time talking about the origins of the turtles or the genesis of this new CG take on an old favorite. Instead, he spends the majority of the track discussing the ins and outs of the animation process. More distressingly, he seems proud of the cuts to the film's length instead of recognizing the problems this caused for the clarity of the plot.
An "Alternate Opening and Ending" (4 minutes) features Splinter explaining the origin of the turtles (rather than the final voiceover provided by Lawrence Fishburne) and an uneventful ending that includes Casey Jones and April O'Neil. Neither scene variation offers anything of substance to the film, and both are presented in pre-viz form rather than in finalized animation.
A "Deleted Scene" (1 minute) is actually a scene extension where Michelangelo sneaks a piece of cake for Splinter. It's an arbitrary scene, but shows the progress of the animation through several stages. Likewise, a group of "Side-by-Side Comparisons of Storyboards and CGI Action" (5 minutes) include a few scene extensions that were trimmed due to story flow. Munroe provides a running commentary of what we're seeing, but this is a fairly standard look at early ideas compared to finalized animation.
"Donny's Digital Data Files" (2 minutes), on the other hand, is a featurette with a lot of potential. Although it ultimately proves too short to make an impact, it details the creation of the CG turtle models and the numerous layers and anatomical nuances in each character. This is one of the few extras worth watching -- I just wish it were much longer.
"TMNT Voice Talent First Look" (5 minutes) is a brief collection of interviews with Patrick Stewart, Laurence Fishburne, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Munroe, and other cast and crew members. Unfortunately, this is purely a commercial endeavor meant to sell you on a film you're already watching. I've seen this sort of featurette a million times before and it doesn't bring anything significant to the supplemental package.
Finally, a version of the film's trailer that was released online is included on the disc -- but alas there's no sign of the actual theatrical trailer.
The 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' films aren't for everyone. Nostalgic memories may make them seem larger than life, but all in all, the films are hardly revolutionary. With a new live-action film in the works, what better time to revisit the original live-action trilogy and the fourth film, a CGI joy ride, which just so happens to be the best looking and sounding disc in the set, to boot, and the only one available individually outside of the set. Fans will love this set, while others may find it a bit underwhelming. As such, it's recommended only for fans, but curious parties won't find a more attractive release of the films.