Success spoiled the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The first film was a fluke. It happened in a bubble due to no studio wanting to touch a live action version of a kids property. As a result the surreal mix of grindhouse and saturday morning tv that was the original movie happened. It resulted in a perfectly calibrated film, one that honored the comics as much as the show. It remains an all time classic comic book movie even in this age.
The sequel? That was doomed from the start to be worse I fear. I’m hardly going to anger people if I call Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze a dramatic step down in quality. If the first is a childhood favorite that actually is as good as remembered, the second film is a perfect symbol of every childhood favorite that fails to live up to memory. It’s a soulless piece of dreck that makes every wrong decision the original didn’t.
Before I even get into the film, it’s important to stress almost every major player on the first was gone. Director Steve Barron didn’t even finish the first movie. Brian Henson left. Much of the cast left including Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas along with Corey Feldman who voiced Donatello and Josh Pais who was suit and voice for Raphael. The film had new editors and a new DP. Aside from Todd Langen returning for what is admittedly a good script, there is very little of the original DNA.
The movie has a basic sequel structure. The threat from the first movie returns, in this case Shredder and the Foot Clan. There’s a new threat, Tokka and Rahzar, evil mutant animals. There’s revelations as the TMNT learn they’re basically a mistake. There’s a big fight. Next. Look, the first was no great shakes on its plot. And as I said, this is a decent script. It’s a solid structure. The quips are good. The story moves. Langen isn’t guilty. Everyone else? Take a seat.
Before I rewatched the first movie, it had been honestly nearly 30 years since I last saw it. And that’s not true of when I rewatched the first movie. I’ve gone back to it every 2-3 years over the last 15 years. It holds up. But I never had the motivation to revisit this one and I didn’t know why until I did. Because truly, this is a film with nothing for adults.
This is a kids movie. It plays it as safe as possible. The violence has been heavily watered down from the original film’s genuine edge. There’s a much lighter tone throughout. It’s brighter. It’s prettier. It’s basically the antimutagen to the original.
So let’s start the dissection on the look. The first movie really did have great atmosphere. The lighting had a mood to it. Even the bright, sunny scenes had a weird overcast quality. There was a feeling this was something serious. And as a 6 year old I responded to it. This movie is all flat tv lighting. It’s bright and has no energy to it. It’s a sitcom. And that robs it of so much importance. That’s on director Michael Pressman, a David E. Kelley acolyte who really gives the film his style. That isn’t right for this at all.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the effects weren’t a dramatic step down. The TMNT got a subtle redesign here to be more appealing and kid friendly and it wrecks them. The first film had such brilliant costume design but the nudges, small as they are, wreck the characters. They’re too cutesy. They look like mascots. Newcomers Tokka and Rahzar look like trash. And the oppressive lighting means all the flaws are on display.
So what about the violence? Because that’s this film’s big claim to fame. The studio demanded it be tamed. It’s the big dividing line. The first film has some genuinely stellar fights. This? They’re slapstick pieces. Even worse, they’re so poorly choreographed that they look like the staged pieces they are. Characters visibly act thrown back from punches feet from them. There’s no grit or grime and there’s no thrill. The movie is so cowardly that at the end Shredder (as Super Shredder played by Kevin Nash of Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL where he’s great) tears down a dock and basically kills himself without the Turtles getting one punch.
That kills this film’s buzz. It’s so much safer and tamer that it doesn’t even respect an audience that rolled with it a year earlier. It’s a puffball movie for very little kids. And fine, that was the audience. But it’s not the material. It’s no accident IDW’s fairly adult book that respects the tone has been a huge hit. The Ninja Turtles are a joke that works because it’s played straight. Not this crap.
And that brings us to the elephant in the room for people who know the behind the scenes story. This was meant to be closer to the cartoon with Bebop, Rocksteady, and Baxter Stockman instead of Tokka, Rahzar, and generic scientist. Eastman and Laird stopped that. There was also talk of bringing in the Utroms but that was stopped. What results explains everything. It’s meant to be one thing and it ends up nothing. The movie is so generic and safe when it could have actually had a personality and respected the cartoon had there not been too many cooks.
And I think it ultimately did tremendous damage to the brand. Not so much we didn’t get a third movie, but enough to dent the momentum. The Ninja Turtles didn’t feel exciting anymore. They were just okay. We were softened on them enough to get ready for the X-Men the next year. This was rushed to avoid the fate it caused.
This isn’t unwatchable mind you. Paige Turco is a fine replacement for Judith Hoag. Who doesn’t love David Warner showing up? It still has a good script. Ernie Reyes Jr. is a nice addition even if he’s in it for little more than to show off his not small skill with martial arts. It moves decently. It’s hardly the third film. And there is still enough of the Turtles to at least scratch the itch. But it’s not the first film by a long shot.
I’ll be blunt. I wouldn’t be discussing the 30th anniversary of this film if it wasn’t for the fact I reviewed the first last year. I come to this one so that I can acknowledge that 30 years ago, my generation learned for the first time a new movie didn’t mean a better movie. If you fondly remember this sequel, leave it in your past.