The world's most fearsome fighting team. Also adorable.
Over the course of 2016, I went from not being able to tell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles apart to knowing far too much about them for anyone's good. Leonardo (blue) leads. Donatello (purple) does machines. Raphael (red) is cool, but rude. Michelangelo (orange) is a party dude. They also like pizza and surfer slang, despite having grown up in the sewers of New York. Some people get into this stuff when they're six, some when they're twenty-six. What brought about this sudden... um... interest in the heroes in a half shell is beyond me. I'm a child of the '90s, so I sort of missed out on Turtle Mania when it was at its peak. It was probably morbid curiosity more than anything. Plus I have a weird love of all things '80s, good and bad, so maybe this was inevitable. In any case, in the span of one year, I watched all six theatrically-released movies (including one in an actual theater), the first few episodes of the original series, a bit of the series from the 2000s, a chunk of the new CG-animated show, and read the first few Mirage comics. And even after all that, it's hard to pin down what makes this strange, funny, and shlock-tastic series so endearing to people. As I kid I probably would have liked it for its surface details. As an adult, there's entertainment value to be found in its unpredictable goofiness and its occasionally darker sense of humor. Plus, that theme song's really grown on me.
So rather than try and give you several long-winded reviews of each part of the franchise, it might be more fun to just get my brief thoughts on the shows and movies in bite-sized pieces. The original comic is not meant for kids, so the shock value of seeing the turtles swear and stab people to death was enough to peak my interest. It was a parody of the ninja fad, the grim-and-gritty sensibilities of '80s comics, and more specifically, Daredevil. To sell a toy line in 1987, creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird teamed up with Playmates Toys, who funded an animated television series. The show was HUGE, running for ten seasons and spanning a literal empire's worth of merchandise. It was very different from the comics, loaded with pun-heavy dialogue, standard Saturday morning villains and plots (likely even setting the standard), and from what I can tell, not much in the way of character development. It has its charm though, and it's at its best when it's tongue is firmly in its cheek. The subsequent animated series from the mid-2000s isn't really my cup of tea... it's certainly a better show in terms of its writing and animation, but it's not a lot of fun to watch. The current series, which began airing in 2012, blows both of them (and each theatrical film) out of the water. It's constantly playing with the tropes of the franchise and cartoon shows in general, frequently filled with hilarious dialogue, solid action, and great voice acting. There's even (gasp) character development and plot progression! Its animation takes some getting used to unfortunately, but if you can get past the wooden appearances of the human characters, it's legitimately a worthwhile show. Who'd have guessed?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The first feature is about as good and bad as one would expect. It's such a dumb movie, but I'll admit that I kind of liked it. You get the sense that a lot of the people involved with this project were making a feature film for the first time (it's technically an independent film after all), leaving the movie with consistently awkward scenes and a radically shifting tone. Combining elements from the comics and the cartoon show leads to some very strange moments (look no further than a scene featuring a hand-puppet rat learning karate), but it's in the strangeness and clear desire to be "gritty" that the entertainment value can be found. There are a few "damns" and "hells" thrown around, there's some child smoking, and the violence is just a bit harsher than what you expect from a typical kids' movie. It may have been released in 1990, but it's pure '80s shlock. It's made with heart and genuine effort (especially from the Jim Henson company), even if the end results are mixed.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Nothing could prepare me for Secret of the Ooze. Nothing. This movie is batshit insane. I was locked in a constant state of bewilderment, never knowing what the hell was going to happen next. It may be a direct sequel to the first movie, but because of the casting changes and the much lighter tone, it feels like a different beast entirely. I'm talking cartoon sound effects, a plot that feels like it's being made up on the spot (which is entirely possible; they shat this thing out in less than a year after all), and the script is full of puns and bad jokes galore. It's a slicker film than the first, to be sure, but I missed the cursing and overall edge the first movie had. Still, I laughed my ass off throughout the movie's hour and a half (which felt SO much longer), and I'm ecstatic to call Secret of the Ooze one of my new favorite so-bad-it's-good movies. Thank you so much, Vanilla Ice.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993)
This one was rough. Not shlock, not so-bad-it's-good, just bad. The first two films are trash, but at least there's some semblance that the folks behind the scenes were trying to make an entertaining movie. Turtles in Time feels more like a cheesy kids' tv show with a high budget. We have more casting changes, the tone is even lighter than the last movie, and gone are the Jim Henson animatronics. Everything's just so clunky; scenes start and stop without flowing into each other, the acting and dialogue are atrocious, and there's this constant noise filling the soundtrack that is absolutely grating. The characters just seem to have to be saying something every second, as if the filmmakers thought kids would get bored if there wasn't constant aural clutter. The time travel plot could have worked fine, but it's executed so poorly. No one cared about this one, and it's clear from minute one that you're in for an all around terrible time.
Fast-forwarding fifteen years, and we randomly run into a little oddity called TMNT. I wasn't sure if the film would try and tie-in to the live action trilogy, but that's definitely not the case. This all-CG version exists in its own universe, but confusingly, you kind of need to know a lot about the characters (feeling for the first time like actual characters) to get enjoyment out of it. It feels like a sequel to a movie that doesn't exist. There's still some stupidity to be found when it comes to the story, but objectively speaking, it's the best of the theatrical movies. It has a stellar voice cast, way less corny dialogue, and a few scenes between Leo and Raph that are, without a doubt, the best the franchise has to offer. Some things hold it back from being legitimately good though, like a hackneyed villain plot and less than top-notch animation. CGI is not kind to human characters. They look like marionettes in the new TV series and they look like melting Barbie dolls in this movie. However, the film is not without style, and it's too bad there was never a follow-up film that takes place in this continuity.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
There's a difference between a movie that wants to be something but doesn't quite get there, and a movie that shoots for the lowest common denominator and passes with flying colors. The Michael Bay-produced Ninja Turtles movies fall into the latter category, and bring with them a very unappealing layer of sleaze. The first film in this new series is a hard reboot for the franchise, giving the Turtles and April O'Neill a new "origin" story that just does not work at all. Everything about this movie just screams "unlikable," from the way the turtles look (despite their motion-capture animation being well-executed) to all of the creepy sexual innuendo. I liked the original movie for it's edge, but this isn't edgy. It's just sleazy. The attempts to ape the success of the Transformers movies are very apparent, and the way it's shot and cast makes it resemble a commercial rather than a movie. With so much money behind it, it's too bad the creative team couldn't have delivered a genuinely good Ninja Turtles movie for once. I guess I give them props for that joke about the hip-hop Christmas album though.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
Out of the Shadows may be a marked improvement over its predecessor, but it's by no means a good movie. Bay stayed on to produce, so the sleaze is still there in truckloads, and the story is still godawful. But it's more awful in an "'80s cartoon" way, and you know what? I'll take that over the generic awful that was slathered all over the 2014 version. There's an abundant use of color, the action is a bit more fun, there are far more characters from the original cartoon present, and there's at least some attempt to get a character moment or two from the titular characters. There's a sense that some of the creative higher-ups were trying to give fans of the franchise something they'd actually like, and while I still think they failed, it says something that they tried. The movie bombed pretty hard at the box office, so I think we're safe from another Bay Turtles movie for now. Thank God for that.
So what can we take away from all of this? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a joke, then it became an empire. Its various adaptations have been so wildly different, and the quality range is a nightmare roller coaster. But man, is it pretty fun to ride. I now have Secret of the Ooze for my next bad movie night, a solid animated series that's still running today, and there's admittedly a charming "awesome" factor when it comes to the original comic, cartoon, and first movie. However, my head hurts from thinking about this crap for too long, so I think I'll wait a bit before dumpster-diving into more '80s pop culture. Crap, now I'm hungry for pizza.