Note: The star ratings are averages for the four titles in this boxed set taken together.
I don't know if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles qualify as the strangest ever kiddie show franchise (I mean, there has to be a case to be made for Power Rangers at least), it certainly has proven to be one of the most popular and weirdly adaptable into various media. I first became aware of the series years ago, long before I ever had kids of my own, when (cue Twilight Zone theme) I was hired to Music Direct a musical featuring a bunch of senior citizens. One of the recurring plot gags revolved around these elders' confusion about their grandkids' fascination with the shelled green quartet. My job was to play the iconic four note TMNT Theme every time the show was mentioned. Well, it's a living.
You do have to hand it to creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird--they went into this enterprise thinking they had simply put together a clever parody of several then popular comics or entries in the then nascent form of graphic novels. I'm not sure whether the ultimate joke was on them or the public at large, but TMNT took off in a way no one (least of all Eastman and Laird) expected, creating a multi-media licensing onslaught that captured the fancy of kids (and, frankly, quite a few adults), leading to a worldwide craze that was one of the pop cultural defining moments of the 1980s to early 1990s (no, I'm not quite sure what that says about pop culture). However silly TNMT may be (especially to "outsiders" beyond the series' rabid fan base), the fact is their genesis in parody gives the series one of its major saving graces: it's a franchise with a great sense of humor, especially about its patently strange characters and overall subject matter. I mean, comics are filled to overflowing with superheroes created by some sort of atomic radiation, but turtles? And turtles trained as ninjas? By a rat? Have I mentioned they all dwell in the sewers of New York City when they're not out combating crime? Well, it's a living.
This new BD boxed set includes three live action features, as well as the CG animated TNMT.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offers us a rather charming, if dated, introduction to the quartet of pizza eating reptiles: "top turtle" Leonardo, highbrow Donatello, anger management candidate Raphael, and joker Michaelangelo. It's to the film's credit that these characters, despite being buried under layers of Jim Henson rubber, all manage to shine through rather distinctively. The film's plot is a pretty silly combination of Manhattan street crime and a nefarious hoard of evil ninjas called the Foot Clan led by a Japanese warlord named Shredder. Also along for the ride are a companion vigilante who, Jason-like, wears a hockey mask, and a spunky female reporter who initially thinks she's dreaming when she's taken to the turtles' underground lair after being attacked by street thugs. For a film moving up on almost two decades old, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles retains a surprising amount of appeal, and manages to be just as surprisingly funny a lot of the time. The four turtles' characters are all very well voiced (the best known voice artist being Corey Feldman as Donatello), and Judith Hoag as reporter April O'Neil and Elias Kotas (who looks like a young Christopher Meloni at times) as masked vigilante Casey Jones provide excellent support. This is a film that rather lovingly invites the viewer into the wacky and wonderful world of the Turtles, and provides some hyperbolic action sequences in the best ninja tradition, without ever taking itself very seriously.
Unfortunately that penchant for not taking itself seriously devolves into something that can only charitably be termed camp in the follow up film, The Secret of the Ooze. I'm not sure if that title is an unintended reference to the film itself, which sadly doesn't keep its leakage quite hidden enough. Any film that relies on the supposed "star power" of Vanilla Ice is off to a pretty shaky start to begin with, and Ooze catapults downhill from there. We get the return of both the nice April (now played by Paige Turco, joining Judith Hoag in the "whatever happened to" pantheon) and the really, really evil Shredder, all mixed up in some sort of save the environment goofiness that may make it Al Gore's favorite ninja turtle film, but does little to reach out to the public at large. This is lame filmmaking at best, and actually cringe worthy at worst, as in the final battle between a mutated Shredder who boasts a Frankenstein-esque vocabulary of grunts and growls. This may appeal to the nostalgic tendencies of viewers who were kids when the film first came out (1991), but it will retain little appeal for others.
I don't know if it's possible to get lower than the sewer-dwelling The Secret of the Ooze, but the third film in the TNMT universe, Turtles in Time certainly aims big for those depths and manages to reach them most of the time. The sad thing here is that there is a glimmer of an excellent idea in the film: our turtle heroes journey back in time to feudal Japan where they discover that, unlike the present where they're scorned outcasts, they're greeted as--well, heroes. This interesting premise is soundly defeated by a ridiculously inept script and unbearably paltry production values, which diminish any charm the once lovable quartet once brought to viewers. I doubt even those basking in nostalgia for the early 1990s will be able to stomach much of Turtles in Time, easily the worst of the three live-action Turtles.
Luckily, things perk up considerably in the long delayed fourth entry in the series, and the only animated feature in this bunch, the anagrammatically (is that a word?) titled TNMT. Freed from the pre-CGI clunky live action special effects which hampered the first three films (actually sort of lovable in an antique way in at least the first film), TNMT revitalizes the series with a nice, quasi-anime meets CGI look and some visceral action sequences that play up our heroes' martial arts expertise. The film is aided immeasurably (if too briefly) by the voice work of Patrick Stewart as this entry's evil warlord, out to achieve world domination (what else?) by retrieving some ancient artifacts, Indiana Jones style. Sarah Michelle Gellar makes a very appealing April in this outing, one who has become something of a Lara Croft character instead of a mere reporter. I was less impressed with the attempt to inject a little dysfunctional family discord into the interplay between the turtle brethren, something that "humanizes" the brothers to a degree, but ultimately distracts from what really sets this movie into overdrive: its riveting action sequences. If TNMT is ultimately too plot heavy for its own good, its knock 'em, sock 'em moments overcome the inertia of too many plot strands being forced together to try to make a coherent whole. This is a great looking and sounding film that augurs well for the turtles, at least in animation mode, for many years to come.
It's probably no big surprise that the most recent, and only animated, film in the bunch is the best looking in this boxed set. All four films sport VC-1 encodes, with the first three bearing 1.85:1 OARs and the fourth 2.4:1. It's a good news/bad news scenario for the three live action films. The good news is, all three look better than they have before; the bad news is, they still look pretty bad at times. Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles has an overabundance of grain, especially in long shots (the opening shot may bring a pang to some as it shows the Twin Towers in all their splendor), and is incredibly dark a lot of the time, with poor contrast to boot. That said, colors, while somewhat muted, are lifelike, and detail can be quite impressive. Splinter the rat's every hair can be seen in amazing sharpness (with attendant edge enhancement, sadly), and the live actors' faces are all displayed in their multi-pored glory. There is occasional aliasing, and despite the grain, what looks like a minimal amount of DNR at times. The Secret of the Ooze is nominally better, with stronger color and contrast, but some of the same artifacting that plagues the first film. Whether it's simply because this is the newest of the live action films, or perhaps because the master was kept in better condition through the years, but Turtles in Time boasts the most impressive BD transfer of the first three outings. Despite the really shoddy production values of this segment of the live action trifecta, Time offers a really robust palette, with solid detail and sharpness all the way. Once again, minor aliasing and edge enhancement rear their ugly heads, but the overall clarity of this transfer helps overcome those obstacles. If only the film itself were better. The only 5 star transfer in the bunch is the CGI-fest TNMT, which offers a Pixar-perfect digital image with astoundingly bright colors and brilliant detail. This is one of the most visually busy films I've seen recently (something that mirrors its overly labyrinthine screenplay), but detail is remarkable throughout this film and should offer videophiles a new treat to show off the wonders of high def to their uninitiated friends.
All of these films sport Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes with, again as is to be expected, TNMT taking top honors in the soundmix category. The live action films show their age, as well as the limits of character voicing, with some of the voice work sounding just a tad hollow with (to my ears anyway) unneeded reverb. There's a noticeable difference between the voiced characters' sound and the "live actors" (as in Hoag et al.) for those attuned to such discrepancies. That said, the live action films boast a decent amount of surround immersion, if, again as is to be expected, an over reliance on the front channels. These are all overly busy sound mixes, sort of live action equivalents to early animes, and that can tend to be too distracting at times. Dialogue can occasionally tend to get buried in too many passing effects (especially in the action sequences). But overall the live action efforts offer good to excellent mixes. TNMT offers a stupendously excellent surround mix, much more immersive than the first three films, and also more aware of LFE and ambient surround placement. This film offers a nonstop array of really fun surround placements, with top notch fidelity and some really impressive dynamic range. All four films offer subtitles in English (either standard or SDH), French and Spanish.
On the BD's themselves, there's virtually nothing to write home about. The first three films offer trailers, and that's it. TNMT replicates its standalone BD supplements, with a pretty lame director's commentary, deleted scenes, and some short featurettes. All in all, a pretty disappointing group of video extras. The real allure of this set, at least for diehard fans, is the packaging, made up to look like a pizza box, the discs themselves, all silkscreened to look like pizzas, and the bonus items included in the box itself. These include a nice (if small) graphic novel adaptation of the first film, a (similarly small) knit beanie with the original Turtles logo on it, eight character cards, and a sketch signed by series creator Eastman. Whether this swag justifies the fairly high MSRP of this set will have to be up to each individual consumer, but don't look for standalone releases of these films anytime soon.
I'm a little conflicted on my ultimate recommendation for this set. On the plus side, you're probably never going to see these films looking and sounding better, and TNMT especially is glorious. On the down side, this is a pretty bulky, under-supplemented collector's set at a fairly high price point. Diehard fans are going to want this one way or the other; everyone else will probably have to think about it for a while. Taken as a whole, I think the good outweighs the bad with this set, so it's Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet