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.