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Ahhh the Ninja Turtles. My last great toy/cartoon love affair where it was all about loving the stories and actually playing with the toys. Sure my toy collecting continues and I still watch plenty of cartoon shows, but the Teenage Mutant Hero (the ‘N’ word wasn’t used in the UK) Turtles come with fond memories and in this soon to be released DVD boxset I get to revisit the original three films ahead of the Michael Bay produced ‘ Ninja Turtles’ next year.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
Let's jump back to the end of the 80s for a moment. The world was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crazy, with a mega popular cartoon show, a ton of toys and merchandise and Turtle Mania sweeping the globe. It was only a matter of time before a movie arrived and 1990 and the inevitable happened, the Turtles movie hit our screens and it hit BIG! This was the big cinematic event for me and I loved the results. I could also go on about how bloody good the film’s soundtrack is (in a very nostalgic sort of way) but that would be a whole other article I think. T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!!

Now, out of all the Turtle movies I have a whole lot of fondness for the first one. In my mind it’s a great flick, both at original release and even now (though to  lesser degree), so revisiting was quite exciting. I don’t think I’ve seen the first Turtle flick in its entirety for at least ten years, maybe more, the other two I don’t think I’ve seen since their original theatrical runs, so let’s see how the Heroes in a Half Shell movies hold up all these years later shall we?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990, 89 mins)

There’s a crime wave sweeping across New York City. Teenage kids are stealing everything they can get their hands on for the Foot Clan and reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is trying to find the reasons behind it. However there’s also another mysterious force fighting for good in the city and they’re green, half shelled and come trained in martial arts. Leonardo (Brian Tochi), Donatello (Corey Feldman), Michelangelo (Robbie Rist) and Raphael (Josh Pais). The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Returning to this first movie after all this time it still feels like a level headed adaptation of the TV show and the comics. Taking elements from both, I still love the dark looks of the film and how, for the most part at least, the Turtles themselves are played straight. Despite the men in suits lead characters and their limited facial movement this still somehow feels like a legitimate film, rather than something just catering for kids. It balances laughs, action and drama fairly well, despite it reeking of 90s movie making and I feel this fits snuggly into the upper end of the comic book/kid’s shows big screen adventures.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
The Turtles as characters keep this all afloat, but the masks and turtle suit mechanics don’t really hold up by modern CGI standards. They are very good suits style wise, but the limited facial movements and obvious mechanics never did feel all that natural and seeing these suits again reminded me of a George Lucas comment regarding how the Turtle work was less impressive than what was used in Howard the Duck, and he’s spot on. The Turtles still feel alive due to the lively voice work and pretty realistic feeling martial arts scenes, but somehow Howard the Duck feels more animated than these four back flipping dudes do. With the new Michael Bay produced Ninja Turtles film just around the corner, I can’t really see how The Turtles will look much better than they do here design wise and they won’t get the characters much better, but modern CGI technology could very well sell them as more than men in suits in the face department.

Anyway, back to the movie. I know this flick really well still, almost shockingly so and I still remember whole chunks of dialogue which made for an enjoyable revisit and a real highlight of how big an event this was in my youth. Splinter's recounting of his tale and his constant stream of wisdom still makes me feel a bit like a wide eyed kid in awe of seeing these cartoon characters brought to life and I really quite enjoy the fight scenes still. My adult brain tells me this is all clichéd guff playing on martial arts movies and ancient wisdom, but damn that talking rat ninja master blinds my adult mind and reminds me how into all this I was a kid, despite the fact the Turtles are obviously really bad students.

Switching back to my adult eyes, the story is pretty damn loose. There’s not really a main character here as such. We get the odd diary entry from April as she tells the story as well as her blossoming Casey Jones (played perfectly by Elias Koteas) romance and of course Danny (Michael Turney) has a life choice to overcome. Raphael's journey from hot head loner to part of the family was actually strong enough to bleed into the core Turtle mythology as a character trait after this movie and it works very well here but really this is a story about lots of things without any real focus on any one thing. Father and sons, being a better person than you used to be and of course good guys vs bad guys. This origin story packs in a ton of information but sort of loses focus at about mid way through and then just becomes about saving Splinter really.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
Judith Hoag is a pretty good April O Neil, even if she’s not visually right. Shredder is vastly underused but has that required Darth Vader presence when he enters scenes. Sam Rockwell as a main player in the group of Foot Clan recruits never ceases to make me grin and in my head this is his character Pero’s secret origin story from Welcome to Collinwood. The Raphael fight on the roof is still pretty awesome; it gains momentum really pulling in all the turtles and really despite the movies flaws (and there are many) this still feels like a legit Turtles adaptation, that’s been thought about and not just thrown out.

Overall, looking back the action here is pretty timid and really it’s just Turtles vs large numbers of Foot Soldiers over and over again, but the movie still works for me right up until the weak ass climax where Shredder finally unleashed falls off a roof and gets crushed in a garbage truck and then the Turtles yell COWABUNGA! and suddenly everything is fine again. What happened to a city in peril? The Turtles just got their asses kicked didn’t they?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991, 84 mins)

Not wanting to let the dust settle the Turtle sequel hit quick. Shredder is back (his body was just left in the garbage truck and he wakes up at the city dump? Great police work there) and the company responsible for the leaked ooze that made the Turtles all mutanty comes under April O’Neil’s reporting eye, leading to more mutations along the way.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
When I said the first Turtle movie was a legitimate adaptation of the cartoon/comics, what I meant was it was a great version of the franchise, played for a wider audience and not just the kids. The first film is sort of what Tim Burton did for Batman, the second Turtles movie is really more in tune with the cartoon and the sort of hijinks that took place in that original series where the insanity grows as the story travels on.

The lively opener reveals slight tweaks to the Turtle costumes, they still look real enough but now they have more cartoony eyes, a little more movement in the mouths and in some cases too much movement in the mouths. I’m not sure if it’s the lighting or the way the Turtles are shot in general, but the man in suit approach seems way more obvious here and its harder to accept these Turtles as living breathing characters, which was a little easier in the first movie. That is a nuts thing to say but I stand by the original movie’s ability to sell the illusion better than in the sequels.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
Beyond the opening fight scene in the toy shop, I’d forgotten the plot to this sequel entirely. Giant Dandelions and what the secret of the ooze was felt entirely new to me like my memory had been wiped, but then I don’t think I’d revisited this one since its 1991 release if I’m honest and even then it might have been a pirate video my brother picked up months in advance of the UK release from Thailand. I guess Turtles II didn’t have a killer soundtrack to keep me locked in or something.

Really this plot and general change in style is more in line with the TV show. Lots of brightly lit labs and mad science with the Foot Clan getting in the way. Sadly there’s no Krang or Bebop and Rocksteady, but we do get some mutated animals for the Turtles to fight despite their inclusion not making a lick of sense. Shredder has the established trained Foot Clan but opts for some newly mutated beasties to fight the Turtles. What did he think would happen? But then these new mutants are terrible. It turns out they are like babies and are poor attempts to echo the much loved carton henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady. This turtle and fox/wolf/squirrel (who knows) look awful. Wide eyed idiotic cartoon character designs like something out of Power Rangers or the pink sidekick in Jingle All the Way and while it sounds silly to complain about bad suits in a movie full of men in suits, these are truly awful editions to the franchise and have rightly been forgotten.

As for the rest of the cast, Paige Turco is cute but a pretty bog standard April O’Neil with no real charisma to bring to the recast. She’s cute but she has no pep to her, she doesn’t even wear yellow! Oh and there’s no Casey Jones!!! The puppeteers seem to have given up on Splinter moving anywhere and of course Vanilla Ice is in the flick. “Go ninja go ninja go!”. Turtles II isn’t terrible but it wasn’t great then and it’s not much greater now.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993, 92 mins)

Turtles III opens in Japan in 1603, so you know immediately that all bets are off when it comes to taken the franchise back to any sort of real world setting. The opening credits has April (Paige Turco) revealing the ancient artefact and sending her off in time. That gets the story going and before you know it the Turtles themselves are swapped in time with some ancient warriors and the shellsome foursome have to find their way back to the future.

Everything about this second sequel is cheap. The story is flimsy and goofy, the Turtles are more plasticy and way more cartoony than in the previous movies and their eyes are more lifeless than ever. Movement wise they do seem more flexible and the seams are hidden better, but the man in suit illusion is awful. The Turtles no longer feel like they have skin but are now made of rubber. Like tome crazy biker suit or something. They all look shocked all of the time and Leo’s mouth is especially awful when it’s closed. Splinter's new puppet/suit is also terrible and he looks more like a cat than a rat. On the plus side Casey Jones is back and twice! Though Elias Koteas seems more happy to play the character’s broody ancient ancestor than goofing it up as the modern day Jones this time out.

I remembered so little of Turtles III and my biggest memory was that the frames flipped in the third act when I saw it at the cinema (yes, I saw this at the cinema). Turtles III isn’t a terrible flick by any means but I put it in the same box as Robocop III, the third and fourth Batman movies and many of the ropey 90s adventures that couldn’t quite find the balance between catering to its own audience and catering to the larger audience (or missing the mark entirely and missing both audiences). One of those productions that had the rights to a much loved franchise but within the brainstorming sessions of how to do another one a goofy idea went one step too far and the end results are so muted and forgettable any of the good intentions are lost in unmemorable dross. Of course after this the live action series with female Turtle Venus de Milo arrived, so Turtles III didn’t have long as the low-point of the franchise.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection

Video


Turtles I & II both come with lots of noise and grain and it ranges from just being there to dancing all over the place. The first film is a dark one and as expected its gets plenty grubby in the not so sharp black areas. Colours remain quite muted and really only pop because of the darkness around them. Softness is also a real issue creating a rather flat looking image.

Detail isn’t bad in close ups but wider shots are pretty damn soft and even fuzzy. Some scenes even look foggy and I’m pretty sure there’s no smoke in there. The Splinter's Tale segments both show off the best textures in the costumes and the worst soft VHS looking footage of the entire film but there are a fair few naturally lit scenes that show the turtles aren’t all that smooth skins but actually quite bobbled and rough.

Turtles II looks a lot grainier and a more on set than the previous movie. In fact it looks a lot less filmic at times and more like a TV movie. Because of the brighter lighting textures and details on the Turtle suits are more apparent but the same can be said for the seams. Also the "outside" scenes don’t have the real world feel but look very much like a soundstage with the presentation doing nothing to sell the illusion. The matte painting city backdrops in the drab flat image looks positively amateur in fact.

Turtles III is a cleaner image with a distinct lack of grain but the TV movie looks and obvious reduction in budget is extremely noticeable. Colours are still fairly muted besides the abundance of green and the odd popping red but the film is brighter than the first two entries.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection

Audio


Turtles I and II come with a bassy (and in the original Turtles film’s case, still awesome) soundtrack other than that the track feels confined by its stereo roots and often times sounds quite tinny. Dialogue is clear and central and while Turtles II feels a little stronger power wise it has the same limited abilities and still feels very central. Turtles III feels even more reduced and lives in a world of dialogue and lightly drizzled score and has very little going on.

Extras


Turtles I comes with a ‘Making Of’ (28:35) which is an original documentary hosted by the Turtles and is a great slice of Turtle Mania and its history. Toys, fans, creators it’s all nostalgic awesomeness.

There’s also a stills gallery, a UK promotional trailer, and original theatrical trailer and a distinct lack of any music videos. How weak!

Turtles II and III come with their trailers and a stills gallery.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie Collection

Overall


I still have a fondness for the first Turtles film but the sequels are pretty lousy really. Better things have come out of the franchise via animated shows and the the enjoyable TMNT animated movie, but it remains to be seen if the big budget reboot of the franchise will work next year. We haven’t seen much but I’m digging Megan Fox as April O’Neil, especially in her yellow jacket and things like the Turtle van and such look cool. Just wait to see the final Turtle designs now I guess.

Anyway back to these originals. This boxset isn't exactly a fan requirement, due to the lack of extras and very little in the way of pretty visuals or audio. I’d be really keen on seeing the Blu-ray versions as there’s a BD boxset out on the same day but for now the original Turtles film feel like a bunch of films sitting on a shelf rather than a franchise that anyone is going to give any love to extras or clean up wise. Still, its good to have them all in one box.


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