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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is coming out (not directed by Michael Bay, despite how other media outlets are reporting it). I am looking forward to it, though I won’t be able to see it until next Tuesday when my local theater has its $5 movie ticket night. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to look back at the previous Ninja Turtle movie series to prep for the reboot.
In the late 1980s, the Turtles was the thing. The cartoon and corresponding toys were HUGE. It seemed that everyone was a fan of the Ninja Turtles and those who weren’t were liars. Naturally, Hollywood wanted to get in on this and created 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Zack and I did a previous podcast on this movie (which is currently archived) and we both agreed that this film is pretty great. And, unlike the animated series around this time, the movie still holds up today.
While the film had some distinct dark elements, it still retains the charm and goofy nature that one would have expected from the Turtles at the time. It is also one of the last movies to depict 1980s New York (you know, a total shithole). The action was surprisingly tight considering how limiting those Turtle costumes must have been for the actors. And the Jim Henson costumes/puppets are amazing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the film still has some odd ball elements (such as when Casey Jones brutally murders Shredder and it’s played for a laugh), but by and large, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just works as a fun, enjoyable film.
1991’s follow-up subtitled The Secret of the Ooze is a definite mixed bag. I remember liking this one when I was little. That was probably because this film was directed towards younger audiences. As the story goes, the first film caused outrage among parent groups due to the violence and dark nature (which is hilarious to think about in 2014 terms). The studio demanded the film be more light-hearted and kid-friendly. The same thing would happen to the Batman franchise a few years later. As a result, the Turtles never used their weapons (despite having them with the entire time), obtained an obnoxious teenage sidekick, and much more campy sequences.
Oh yes, and Vanilla Ice. Can’t forget about Vanilla Ice.
This isn’t a particularly good film, but I understand its cult status. It falls on that “so bad, it’s good” with a healthy dose of nostalgia. The film came at the apex of Turtles mania, so I get why people are fond on the film. For that reason, I feel it earned its place in pop-culture.
Then we get to 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. Oh boy. This movie was just a mistake all the way around. Like anything big in pop-culture, the Turtles had a short self-life. The first two films were made quickly and capitalized on the Turtles’ popularity. By 1993, that popularity had waned. Though the film did okay at the box office, it was no way as successful as the previous two entries.
Part of the problem was that the kids who were into the Turtles were growing out of it. I remember I went to go see this movie, but I was totally indifferent to it. I felt like I had to go because I saw the earlier ones (my childhood misplaced sense of responsibility).
The box office is just one thing. The movie itself was really terrible. I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do by doing something different, but it just didn’t work. Several narrative beats and character moments are a bit all over the place (why does Mike, of all turtles, want to stay in feudal Japan again?). And the film just looked cheap. What happened to the awesome Jim Henson animatronics from the first two films?
Perhaps part of the problem was that not only did the Turtles fade from the spotlight, but the early ‘90s kind of had a ninja fad going on with other films such as 3 Ninjas and Surf Ninjas. Those were mostly played for laughs. Of course, it can be argued that this was started by the Ninja Turtles and it almost makes me think that they started to copy the copy. Whatever the case may be, the film series died right then and even though the cartoon continued until 1996, people stopped caring.
The Ninja Turtles franchise went through a couple of trying years. There was a live action series in the style of Power Rangers which featured a female Turtle in the late ‘90s. It bombed. However, in the mid-2000s, a second, more serious cartoon started airing. Like the previous animated series, this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles quickly found popularity (though not nearly as much as its predecessor), and Hollywood decided to try again with a new movie.
The result was 2007’s computer animated TMNT. This film is an improvement over the previous two installments, but it didn’t quite work for me. It is a competently made, but some of the more supernatural elements seemed out of place in a Ninja Turtle film. I know that sounds silly considering these movies are about human-sized turtles who fight crime, but there you have it. TMNT was successful, but apparently not enough to warrant a follow-up. I suppose it is a decent enough finale to the previous three movies (even if it came out 14 years later).
After that, multiple attempts were made to bring the turtles back to the screen. None were really successful (minus a third animated series) until Platinum Dunes stepped in and gave Jonathan Liebesman the keys. Will this film re-launch the Turtles film series? The early reviews are not promising, but it is important to remember that none of the Ninja Turtles were hits with the critics. As long as the new film is goofy and fun with an interesting-enough story, that really all that should matter, no?
Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go!