There will always be a special place in my heart for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). When the animated series first came out, I was instantly hooked. My parents had to change their Sunday evening plans regularly because there was nothing that could get me more upset than us not being home by 5:30pm on a Sunday (oh the innocent pre-DVR, pre-streaming days). When my parents compromised by saying that I could tape the show (thus ensuring endless rewatchability for me and a sharp downward trend in productivity), I filled almost every VHS tape we had with the stuff. I had dozens upon dozens of action figures and spent countless afternoons with my sibling creating epic battles that spanned my entire house (much to my mother’s chagrin). When I finally got to go to Disney World when I was 9, the most exciting thing for me was that there was a Ninja Turtle meet-and-greet at Disney-MGM Studios (and it completely met, nay, TOTALLY EXCEEDED my expectations) I’m pretty sure I’ve used the theme song of the show as a lullaby for my child. Even now as a grown-up I still have a dedicated corner of my house that has TMNT merchandise.
The Turtles also hold a special place in my movie-watching heart because the original movie (1990) was the very first movie that I have a distinct memory of going to see. And the movie completely blew me away because I saw my turtles actually come to life and it didn’t look fake at all (to my 6-year old mind). It was my first experience of the absolute power and wonder of cinema. And though as a cinephile today I kind of wish I had a better “first experience”, those Turtles would be the ones who would, as Pauline Kael would say, make me “lose it at the movies”. Although truth be told, I will argue with anyone who wants to this day that the original movie is in fact a legitimately good movie.
Now don’t get me wrong, nobody is ever going to call the third movie a masterpiece. In fact nobody is going to call this franchise anything close to a masterpiece. But there is something kind of fantastic about the gall of the third and final entry in the series (prior to its inane reboots). Most times when the third movie of a kid-friendly franchise rolls around, everyone involved has figured the formula to success and just phones it in. But not this time around. Where the first two movies in this franchise hewed close to the comic-book formula of a bunch of ninja turtles kicking butt in New York city against an iconically named Shredder, the third completely eschews this and instead transports the action to ancient Japan with a good dose of sci-fi time travel in between. Rather than recycle old sets and simply adding a new big bad to replace the presumably deceased Shredder from the previous instalment (who incidentally was resurrected in the sequel after being presumably disposed of in the original), the Turtles instead find themselves caught in the middle of a local dispute in feudal Japan in a classic fish-out-of-water tale).
Yes, this time the Turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Michalengelo, and Raphael) find themselves having to rescue a time-displaced April O’Neill, which means they travel to the past to feudal Japan and right into the middle of a civil war between the local daimyo and a rebel group. The way in which they get to that point is no doubt extremely contrived and inelegantly explained, but you have to appreciate the sheer moxie of everyone involved for trying to pull this off. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no similar storyline in the source comic-book material for the screenwriters to riff off. Rather than simply rehash famous comic arcs, they decided to take the Turtles into completely uncharted waters.
Additionally, the movie improves on the previous sequel (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze) in a significant way. The Secret of the Ooze dialled back the violence of the original (and best) movie in a response to concerned parents who as usual got overly paranoid that kids might parrot the antics of their heroes. It got so ridiculous that Michelangelo (the orange one) was reduced to only being able to use his nunchuk-wielding skills if the nunchuks were in fact cold cuts and the final climatic battle was only acceptable if Vanilla Ice was involved. Gladly Ninja Turtles 3 decides to course-correct and bring back the action to the series. The Turtles are allowed to actually use the weapons given them. Swords actually clash, armour gets hit, and guns get fired. We have multiple action set-pieces, which given the feudal Japan setting, gives it more of a Kurosawa-lite war epic feel where the Turtles are merely one of the players involved in the larger story.
But unfortunately, that is about where I end whatever positive thoughts I have about the film (when I’m not wearing my rose-colored nostalgia glasses). Right from the get go the problems in this movie become apparent and none more clearly than in the sub-standard animatronics used here. This was the first movie to not use the Jim Henson production company and boy does it show. It is generally not a great sign when a whole bunch of the Turtles dialogue happens off-screen, behind masks, or in rapid motion and you can see why they had to do that because every time they do a close-up the lip-syncing is atrocious. It is clear that it was the Jim Henson touch that went a long way to making the Turtles look lifelike and believable and without that touch they really do look like cheap puppets.
And while kudos should be given for getting back to the action that made the original great (ok, fine what made the original good) major deductions have to be given for severe miscalculations. First, they brought back Casey Jones who is one of the only characters who can, in my book, compete with the turtle foursome for sheer coolness but then they make the grievous and inane error of sticking him with babysitting duty away from the samurai action. And before you jump on me and say “but Elias Koteas does get a second role in Japan as Whit” the fact is that it’s still a monumental waste of talent (and Whit is just a paper-thin character). To make matters worst (or slightly more tolerable) Splinter barely even gets any time to make an impression as he is stuck with babysitting duties with Casey.
Then the movie spends so much of its runtime keeping the Turtles apart whether by actually physically separating them or by sticking them with side-stories designed to keep them from actually interacting with each other. Mikey and Raph are given forced storylines to amp up some tension about their loyalties and the (remote) possibility that the gang might break up. Donnie never breaks out of his “geek-tech” mode and is saddled with that. And Leo frankly, simply disappears in this movie. Watching again it was quite shocking to see how utterly insignificant he is to the plot. It is as if by this point the writers simply banked on the fact that we have memories of how fun it was to see the Turtles as a unit and those memories would carry us over for the (thankfully short) duration of the movie. The Turtles are the most fun when they are allowed to be a unit and interact as such and they made a grave mistake by moving away from that.
Meanwhile while they veered away from the “G” rated violence of TMNT 2, they decided to dig deeper into the groan inducing humour of that sequel. Granted the Turtles have always been known to frequently throw appropriately timed one-liners but there are seriously whole lines of dialogue and sometimes what feels like whole scenes that are nothing more than a string of one-liners thrown together. And while some of them are pretty hilarious, the hit-to-miss ratio is severely off-balance especially if your sense of humour has at all progressed beyond a ’90s pre-teen boy level.
Every great Ninja Turtle has three elements in it: the action, the humour, and the camaraderie of the Turtles and their allies. They sort of succeed in the action, but fail utterly in the rest which then makes all the other flaws of the movie so much more apparent. While a good Ninja Turtles story might make me let slide the fact that almost all the Japanese in feudal Japan speak impeccable American English, here it becomes an unending distraction (although at least they had the good sense to cast Asian characters in Asian roles, something modern Hollywood doesn’t seem to be able to grasp recently). The English pirates add close to nothing here except by making me wonder if the main antagonist Walker got his crew from Captain Hook’s reject pile and if he got his training in how to be a scenery-chewing villain from an online school.
Even though the movie does some great things in terms of completely pushing the Turtles into an off-the-wall scenario, it seems that this was as far as the creativity went with this one. Though they brought back the action and the nunchuks, the original movie still is a much, much better action movie, and though they kicked the humour into overdrive ultimately the sequel remains a more enjoyable (and with 100% more Vanilla Ice) action comedy. And by keeping the central characters apart for so long, the movie runs the danger of completely losing the point of its existence which ultimately relegates this movie’s status to being only necessary for die-hard fans looking for something new. Otherwise, move on.
Rose-colored nostalgia glasses rating: ★★★ 3/5
Otherwise: ★★ 2/5