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Classic ‘Ninja Turtles’ films in perspective

Marty Schroeder | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

With a love of pizza and cries of “Cowabunga!” the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are icons of a generation. With the film release of the newest addition to the Turtles universe, it’s important to remember the earlier films that made our younger eyes glow in wonder at the heroes in a half shell.

Released in 1990, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” promised our Renaissance-named heroes as “lean, green and on the screen,” and it certainly impressed every six-to-10 year old in the country. With the Turtles fighting their archrivals, the Foot Clan, they hid in the sewers of New York and delivered their own brand of justice all the while being led by the sagacious Splinter. With the aid of the cocksure Casey Jones and beautiful reporter April O’Neil, the vigilante Turtles battled the evil Shredder.

Starring Elias Koteas and Judith Hoag as Casey and April respectively, this film was panned by critics but loved by a generation. The suits the turtle actors wore left something to be desired in terms of matching lip movement and voices but they did their job well enough for a fan base raised on the cartoon version.

Following the success of the first film, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” was released the following year. The sequel delved into the origins of the Turtles, introducing the radioactive material that transformed them from mere house pets to the league of headband-wearing crime fighters they were to become. The introduction of two new villains, Tokka and Rahzar, added to the fantastic nature of this film.

More light-hearted than the first film, “Turtles II” features the famous “Go Ninja, Go!” sequences performed by the inimitable Vanilla Ice. A rather unneeded and out of context scene, this nonetheless became the unofficial tag line of the film. With ninjas a-go-going and animals and men alike finding new power in the “ooze,” this movie was, like its predecessor, panned by critics but loved by fans. With its bouncing music and light-hearted tone, this was the children’s film producers had been looking for. Unfortunately, with the third film, they went a little too far.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” saw the Turtles travel back in time to feudal Japan with the aid of a magic scepter found by April. With poor production values, “TMNT III” saw the franchise take a nose-dive into the ridiculous. The Turtles had to battle weapons dealer Walker and the Japanese Lord Norinaga in order to prevent a war from breaking out. Granted, it is a children’s film, but by 1993, fans of the Turtles were only getting older and yet the third film pandered to a younger audience than the second. While adding some memorable scenes to the canon, the third installment couldn’t match the dark mis-en-scene of the first film, nor the happy-go-lucky innocence of the second.

In the end, the early ’90s Ninja Turtles trilogy represents only a small fraction of what the Ninja Turtles are. With the release of the original comic books, the franchise was born, and, following those, the cartoons, toys and video games garnered a legion of children all over the world. Thankfully, the film tradition that began almost two decades ago is still alive and well.