By 1989 the Turtles craze was in full swing. The cartoon was the most popular kids shown on TV, and the merch was selling in truckloads, with everything from turtles bubble bath to Asda's vile pizza topping selection which would make a billy goat puke!
A live action incarnation was inevitable, and in the 1990's instead of one we got three.......
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Although receiving mixed reviews by critics, to call the film a smash hit would be somewhat of an insult. The producers threw a measly 14 million at the film, but it recouped over 300 million at the box office making it THE most popular film of 1990, beating even Total Recall which took in 260 million. It was also the most successful independent film ever (at the time).
The film takes an extremely brave decision to have a mature feel more in line with the comics rather than the cartoon series, which, let's face it, was largely responsible for it's popularity.
British director Steve Barron, who initially only had a tiny budget of 7 million, actually treated the subject matter with a great deal of respect and delivers probably the most mature and solid interpretation of the Turtles that has been seen so far. (Seriously!)
The film has it's share of goofy moments, but on the whole it is very dark and gritty with a muted pastel look and heavy use of shadows in the cinematography. It's unclear what film stock was used to shoot on, but the movie has quite a grainy and slightly rough look to the print. This, instead of detracting from the film, only adds to the rough and tough "streetness" of the whole adventure. The movie has some important themes woven throughout which concern family, fatherhood, upbringing, feeling outcast and alone, temptation, child crime and gang dangers. The mere fact that The Shredder is using orphaned teenagers to build his Foot clan army is grim enough in itself.
The film was made in association with Hong Kong's Golden Harvest studios who were famous for their exceptional Martial arts films during the 80's and 90's. Golden Harvest produced and made almost all of Bruce Lee's and Jackie Chan's films, as well as other seminal kung-fu stars such as Samo Hung, Cynthia Rothrock and Yuen Biao. Needless to say, the action in the Turtles film is of a quite a high standard. While not quite at the Über mental Hong Kong levels, the film's fight action is excellent, with plenty of wide angle shots and some very well choreographed moves. The production doesn't shy away from the use of the Turtle's weapons either, and we get a good display of their arsenal, including the now famous nunchacku scene which was sadly deleted from the UK cut.
Probably the most surprising thing about the film is just how much it delivers on an emotional level. The theme of delinquency runs very string throughout the film, which is paralleled by Danny and his father and Raphael with Splinter. The Turtles themselves are of course animatronic puppets (no CGI here!), and were done by the world famous Jim Henson's creature shop. They are, in a word - superb! The Turtles features and expressions move in a smooth and natural way, and the articulation, projection, and most importantly, their displays of emotion are excellent.
Special mention must go to the Splinter puppet, and of course his voice and puppeteer - the superb Kevin Clash. The puppet is tremendous and really looks like a giant rat, complete with sewer grime and mangy fur. What is amazing is that all the scenes with Splinter really tug at the old heart strings. Whether it's giving advice to one of his beloved sons, or give's his "fire speech" which, with undertones of a sombre goodbye, you can't help but well up a little due to the sincerity of the delivery.
Kevin Clash should have won some sort of award for his role as Splinter as it's just a masterful performance all round which hits on so many levels. Steve Barron really does a really good job at drawing out the emotions from his puppet cast and projecting them on to the audience.
The other members of the cast do their jobs reasonably well. Judith Hoag plays a much more real world April O' Neil (personally I though she was much more attractive than Paige Turco due to her personality), and she plays off nicely to a spot-on and scene stealing Elias Koteas as Casey Jones. Shredder is a combination of actor James Saito with voice actor David McCharen. This is presented in a extremely sinister fashion which completely steers away from the goofy cartoon counterpart, and is most certainly not played for laughs. The rest of the voice cast do their job nicely, with the recognisable tones of Corey Feldman as Donatello providing some familiar ground.
The score and incidental music was composed by John Du Prez. The first thing you notice is how dark the film's music is. It does have it's lighter moments, but the score has a very sinister feel combined with some exceptionally sad and tragic melodies which fit the mood of the film almost to a tee. The track "Shredder's Suite" is particularly worthy of note, with a foreboding and percussive intro leading to an epic synth and guitar driven climax. John also weaves in some noticeable oriental themes into the score with Shakuhatchis and pan pipes aplenty along with the more sombre parts of the music which accentuate the 'Ninja' feel of the film. Du Prez is most famous for his collaboration with The Monty Python team, which is probably about as far away as you could get from the style of this film. However, if you listen to the score from "A Fish Called Wanda" which is also by Du Prez, you will hear many familiar cues which are similar to this film (unsurprising since the movies were just two years apart!)
Sadly, the incidental score for the film has never received an official release, which is absolutely criminal. Only the soundtrack featuring the commercial songs in the movie were made available to the public.
The pop portion of the soundtrack is a sheer and solid slab of early 90's megacheese! The title track of "Turtle Power" was at the number 1 spot in the UK charts for a whopping 4 weeks and received almost continual airplay on the radio. The rest of the songs are "typical of the time" house and dance numbers, with crap synths and bad samples aplenty, and rotten fashion everywhere. If you don't enjoy it even slightly then you simply have no soul!
The best part of the film is that, due to the more serious and dark nature, the movie stands the test of time really well. Not being treated like an idiot when you are a child is an appealing thing, plus the older you get the more the film still stays in line with your thought patterns instead of becoming childishly goofy as the years roll on.
It's interesting to note that director Steve Barron wasn't just some guy that the studio hired after the project was greenlit. Steve was the one who spearheaded the project from the start and went around all the studios with the script trying to get it made. It's also a little known fact that this was actually a small indy film that just happened to get insanely popular, becasue at the time New Line Cinema were an independent Studio before merging with Warner Bros. in 1996. Steve was also basing the project almost solely on the comics as the cartoon hadn't quite taken off until round about the time that shooting had began.
If you wish to listen to a full feature length commentary by director Steve Barron (taken from the German DVD) then click HERE.
I was lucky enough to get an uncut pirate Betamax (HA!) of the film a few months before it was released here in the UK in 1990. It was fuzzy, and the audio was occasionally out of sync, but to say that I watched it to death was an understatement. The dark and shadowy feel was spot on, and it was just the right mix of action, humour, mysticism, and sorrow. A special edition Blu-Ray with outtakes, commentary, and making of documentary is LONG overdue.
It forms part of my personal Holy Trilogy of films, including Batman and Terminator 2 which all came out consecutively in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
Is it the best film ever? No, but to this day it's still unsurpassed as the best Ninja Turtles movie, and it's a comforting feeling to know that whatever comes after doesn't really matter as we'll always have this film.
TMNT II: The Secret Of The ooze
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of The Ooze (or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Day I learned to mistrust the film industry), was released on the 9th of August 1991. With a budget of 25 million the game was upped, but conditions were also applied too. As with the first film it received mixed and negative critical reviews, but seemed to please the majority of younger fans at the time. The sequel was this time directed by Michael Pressman, a TV director who was obviously give some strict guidelines by the producers. The film explores the origins of the Turtles as well as introducing new characters to the series.
The first thing you notice about the film is the considerable difference in tone to the first movie.
Overprotective and overly vocal parents have been responsible for the destruction of some of film's most beloved franchises. Superman fell foul to a more kid friendly feel in the 80's, and Batman was almost totally destroyed after moans from concerned Mums and Dads about the welfare of their little spawn apon seeing Danny DeVito's amazingly gruesome Penguin. Unfortunately the Turtles weren't immune to this backlash, and so while failing to see the artistic and film making merits of the first movie (which stayed closer to the comic source) the sequel was horrendously dumbed down.
The whole film has a real TV movie feel to it. The cinematography isn't bad by any means and it's shot quite well, but it's considerably brighter than the first film which was drenched in smoke & shadow. Considering the film works with puppets, and studios dressed as outdoor locations, this was a bad move as it will show up any small flaws or 'fakeness'
Jim Henson sadly passed away not long before the first film's release, but his creature workshop returns to do the puppets. Once again the Turtles are extremely high quality, but there seems to be a magic that was lost when Henson died, as the puppets now seem a little more lifeless than before. Henson was the master of making you believe that what was on screen was alive. Even the simple movements of the Skeksis from "The Dark Crystal" were believable as real and sinister creatures.
Judith Hoag did not return as April O' Neil due to having some outspoken views, and was replaced by Paige Turco. Turco, while a pretty face, doesn't really do much in the movie, and has little in common with the actual character on which she is based. While Hoag played a rather sharp and stubborn April O' Neil, Turco is nothing more than a device to expositionally move the plot along or make a joke land. Other cast changes see Corey Feldman and Josh Paris not returning as the voices of Donatello and Raphael respectively. Elias Koteas is also absent as Casey Jones (the character of which mysteriously does not appear at all!)
Instead we have a new sidekick for the Turtles in the form of teenage martial artist and pizza delivery guy, Keno, played by Ernie Reyes Jr. of Red Sonja fame (he played the bratty child King). Reyes looks like he's putting 100% into his role and having a bit of fun with it too. David Warner appears as a scientist, and as with all his performances, adds a bit of credibility and weight to the dialogue with his excellent delivery. Being a direct sequel, some old faces such as Toshishiro Obata (who is a real life Japanese sword master) returns as Foot master Tatsu.
One of the film's oddest decisions was to include the newly created characters of Tokka and Rahzar. These of course were 'supposed' to be Bebop and Rocksteady, but some licencing problems with Eastman & Laird caused the characters to be unavailable, and so new ones had to be made for the film. Whether this is a blessing in disguise is undecided as the characters are monumentally childish, and I'm unsure whether I'd have liked to have seen B & R like that.
One thing that the film does do quite well is the action. Whilst not appearing all that often, the fight choreography is surprisingly rather excellent, with wide angle shots and some much faster and more fluid moves than the prequel. This is down in part to parents and producers demanding that the Turtles weapons be used less, and so the hand to hand combat in the film was upped. Credit where credit is due, for a mainstream American based film it's damn good, although a few meatier punch and kick sound effects wouldn't have gone amiss.
With the kid friendly tone being used, more 'humour' has also been inserted too. This mostly works, but the majority of it is exceptionally goofy and immature while still staying clean and safe, which on the whole, won't appeal to anyone over 8 years old. The film uses really bad situational comedy, and even resorting to cartoon sound effects in some of the fights (Jebus wept!) To be fair, some of the humour does land and it lands quite well, as the odd nugget of spot on comedy crops up and it's really hard not to laugh - even as an adult. Overall, it's easy to see why kids loved this film. It's more mature than the cartoon, but way lighter then the first movie.
The less said about the appearance of Vanilla Ice in the film the better. If you ever feel the need to chew your own fist off through cringe then check out the interview he did at the time concerning the film where he talks about how he "Brings the Ice".
Aside from the dumbing down of the tone, the film's other big issue is that it lacks any sort of central theme. The first film had a strong sense of family running through it's core, but there is nothing here bar a clichéd revenge plot by Shredder and some thin origin quest which just serves to try and mimic some of the more emotional scenes from the first film.
To be fair on the film I was pushing 14 years old when I saw it in the cinema which may have been nearer the top end of, if not over the target age range. I was also by that age, already an avid watcher of 18 rated Hong Kong martial arts films, Van Damme movies, and stuff like Robocop, so kid friendly films were pretty much wasted on me. Add to this my undying love for the first film (which was still only a year old at the time), and the respect it showed me by not treating me like a fool, and ultimately The Secret Of The Ooze was more than a bit of a disappointment.
It seemed like everyone was oblivious to the goofy, kiddie feel of the film except me, and I had a hard time trying to point out even some of the more obvious flaws to chums. The film does however have one or two serious moments, and combined with the excellent music (once again provided by John Du Prez), they can actually hold some attention when glued together with the fights.
Watching it today, it's actually not as bad as my bitter 1991 disappointment led me to believe. I mean yes, it's stupid. Almost to the point of insulting, but it's harmless, and if I'm honest the actual plot isn't terrible, it's just executed in a really dumb way.
The film seems to be adored by quite a lot of nostalgic people, and I can sort of see why if you were of a certain age at the time. To give credit to the film, on the re-watch I found that even a shitty nostalgia trip can be quite an enjoyable one.
I'll say this: if The Secret of The Ooze had been the original 1990 film then there wouldn't have been much to complain about. Unfortunately, we were spoiled with that first live action round, and the sequel doesn't even come close to the depth and feel of it's predecessor, which is a shame as they were really on to something with the dawn of darker comic book films at that time.
A prime example of what happens when you put bums on seats over artistic integrity.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
They took the same approach with the Turtles films, and within just a year of the first movie coming out the second instalment was rushed into production. A lot of people went on the quality of the first film and flocked to see the sequel making it somewhat of a financial success, and so the wheels were yet again put in motion for ANOTHER sequel.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was release in 1993 to mostly negative reviews, and with a budget of 21 million, slightly cheaper than the second film, but still 7 million more than the first.
When the film came out everyone pretty much knew how it was going to be before they even saw it judging by the direction taken by TMNT II: Secret Of The Ooze and unfortunately they were bang on.
Plot and script wise the film is a mess. The dialogue is so bland it's hard to keep track of what's actually going on. The comics have a pretty good selection of villains to choose from and they could have gone back to the dark roots of the first film. Sadly though, once again greedy studio execs were pandering to a young audience with insultingly bad material.
The Japanese people don't even speak Japanese to each other, which is just one of the many flaws of this film, and one that you would not get away with these days. The flimsy time travel plot is also both highly unbelievable and totally rushed (I don't even think it's 3 minutes in before it happens) which gives no real build up or suspense.
To be fair, and on the plus side, the film actually looks very pretty in parts. Feudal Japan always makes for a visually appealing setting, and while you 'can' tell that it's in a studio, sometimes it's pulled off well enough that you don't really mind. Excellent use of smoke, matte paintings for establishing shots and some very nice costumes. As with the last film it's lit well, but just a bit too brightly.
Action wise, we are treated to some reasonably well staged scraps by fight choreographer Pat E. Johnstone (Moustached referee of Karate Kid fame!), although they are sparse to the point of blink and you'll miss it and are kept very safe and kid friendly.
The cast isn't what I would call "bad", but they aren't given much to work with in terms of a script or motivation. Writer/director Stuart Gillard doesn't provide much in the way of snappy dialogue, and so it's just a case of chewing from one line to the next. Paige Turco returns as April 'O Neil but she might as well have been anyone else as her role is purely to play a damsel in distress. It's great to see Elias Koteas back, and he seems to be having fun in his duel roles, but special mention must go to Stuart Wilson as Walker. Yes it's crap they didn't go with any of the other villains, and even he can be hammy, but bar Koteas, Wilson is probably the best actor out of the cast, and he makes the film at least half watchable with some nice Rik Mayall type delivery in parts. It's also nice to see the return of Corey Feldman's voice, and Casey Jones coming back is brilliant. However, the lack of the amazing Kevin Clash as the voice of Splinter really lets the film down, with a poor and rather fake sounding substitute, made all the worse by bungling his way through the awful dialogue, which does nothing except steal lines and jokes from the first 2 films without a 'shred'(HA!) of shame.
This is the first film in the series where the Jim Henson Creature Workshop did not return to do the puppets - and it shows! The animatronics are terrible. The Turtles mouths move so quick and jerky that you can tell it's just a bunch of wires beneath some latex skin, with big fake looking overly white Wallace & Gromit teeth gurning away every 5 seconds. The Heroes seem to have turned into alcoholics too, which is the only real explanation for the sudden appearance of liver spots all over them which weren't really prominent before.
Turtles III was fighting a losing battle from the start. By 1993 The Turtles craze was really starting to die out, with new ground-breaking franchises like Jurassic Park which were released that year, and drawing even more attention away from the heroes in a half shell.
I think the real disappointment is that it showed a glimmer of potential in the production design, but just got swamped down in garbage. Bad execution, crap script, and the final product is simply an exercise in kicking the last few coins out of the dying goose, and nothing more.
It's just about watchable as part of a Turtles binge and nothing more. Otherwise don't bother!
TMNT: The Next Mutation (1997)
While not a film, The Next Mutation was a live action TV series based on various incarnations of the characters. The series shares some direct continuity with the live action films such as locations and, events, features, and characters. Some changes were made though. Shredder lives in this world and is no longer the Super Shredder, plus some of the Turtles wear full head bandanas instead of just eye masks now.
In addition, April 'O Neil and Casey Jones do not appear at all in the series. Other notable differences include some subtle , and some not so subtle weapons changes. Leonardo carries a single double bladed sword instead of two, and Donatello has a metal staff now instead of a wooden one, Raphael's Sai could now combine to make a short sword, and Michaelangelo's weapons were now a pair on Tonfa instead of his signature Nunchaku.
Ok let's not mince words here - this is absolute bullshit. The writing and direction were absolutely terrible, and obviously being a TV show they couldn't afford Jim Henson's Creature Workshop or any other animatronics shop, so we get landed with goofy masks which can only do about two expressions, and even they are rubbish. Splinter now looks like an oversized sock puppet, and would probably be put to better use as a wank catcher than feature him on this atrocity of a show.
The acting is woeful, even for a TV show, and there seems to be zero flow to the episodes as the turtles just bungle about doing random shit for the hell of it.
The show even has the gaul to introduce a new Turtle - a female called Venus de Milo, and the explanation for her being there is just the thinnest veneer of absolute horse shit that you could imagine. I mean, Venus isn't even the name of a f**king artist. It's a sculpture by Alexandros Of Antioch, who wasn't even Italian. He was Greek!
I have rarely witnessed such vile an atrocity in my whole life. A twitching, limping, wheelchair of pure rubbishery that must have been conceived in a boardroom by having twelve executives beating off in a circle over a $100 bill stapled to the head of barely living turtle.
Go and dig up a dead family member and spoon them naked. It'll be more enjoyable than this!
Striding forth from his lair at Castle Stareskull one morning, Prototron decided to not reign down terror on the villagers, but instead go back inside, crack open a beer and load up Streets Of Rage 2. One hundred years later, he's still there. A avid music maker (of TERROR!) and retro gamer, he can be found whooping any and all heroes at all manner of SNK-based challenges.