Turtle Power – A Grown Man’s Introduction To The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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A belated discovery of a 1980s cultural phenomenon.

Until now, I’d managed to go through my life without ever seeing a single instalment of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, either as a cartoon TV show or a live-action movie. Of course, there was no avoiding the phenomenon as a whole while it was at its peak, but it had never impacted on my cultural landscape. Until now. But you can only dodge that bullet for so long. Today, after a night watching all three movies back to back, I feel entirely turtled out.

Now, I understand that these films are not aimed at me. Obviously, little kids loved these movies and the characters at the time, even if that love was somewhat manipulated by advertisers with merchandise to sell. Things being what they are, I imagine the people who jumped up and down with excitement at the mere idea of these films when they were ten will still have a nostalgic love for them now.

For me, the most intriguing thing about these films – and the TV series that preceded them – is what they say about Britain and the moral panics that the country is continually gripped by. It’s hard now to imagine that these characters gave our moral protectors kittens back in the days, with the word ‘ninja’ dropped from the title in favour of the less violent ‘hero’ and the BBFC’s ludicrous censorship of each movie. It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secrets of the Ooze that is the film where a scene of one character swinging a string of sausages about was cut because BBFC uber-fuhrer James Ferman had such a bee in his bonnet about nunchucks that even the mere suggestion of them had to be removed to protect children and adults. Notably, all three of these films are now uncut, rated PG. Ferman must be spinning in his grave.

There are, I guess, two ways of looking at these films. You might consider them to be the ultimate in Hollywood cynicism, a crass marketing programme with the sole aim of parting little kids from their money. Or you might simply see them as lightweight, harmless juvenile fun. They are probably a little bit of both. How kids today will react to these movies is an interesting question – will the action, the silliness and the comic book adventure override the somewhat rubbery costumes? Or will the current generation, brought up on CGI, find this all very laughable?

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The first film sees our four heroes – Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – battling the evil Shredder, aided by wise sensei rat Splinter, plucky news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) and stoner vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas). Plot elements are served up in bite-sized chunks – we get a brief origin story for anyone curious as to why there are four human-sized talking turtles and a philosophical rat battling martial artists in New York, the connection between Splinter and Shredder is revealed and there’s some filler involving a teenage runaway who ends up in Shredder’s gang The Foot (the fact that he surrounds himself with teenage boys these days seems rather more dubious than the frankly petty thefts he carries out).

The Turtles manage to be astoundingly annoying if you are not a fan of late 1980s American asshole culture. It’s like Bill and Ted or the cast of Wayne’s World had been genetically spliced with reptiles. Some of you might love that. Personally, I have very little patience for dumb ass surfer talk and so they quickly began to grate on me. And I’m not sure that the characters really survive the move from animation to live-action – what looks fine as a drawing is rather less effective as a rubber outfit that has limited facial expression.

That said, in many ways, this is one of the most effective attempts to create a live-action cartoon. The fact that the Turtles are voiced by different actors that those in the suits (including Corey Feldman!), the fairly flat acting, the ridiculous dialogue, the silly story and the characterisation all combine to create something that is very much like a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s relatively painless to watch on the whole, if entirely disposable and certainly not very good, and the violence is enough to excite the juvenile audience without ever going too far.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secrets of the Ooze appeared a year after the first film and offers more of the same, the major change being Paige Turco replacing Judith Hoag as April O’Neil and Casey Jones being dropped. Shredder returns after surviving his apparent death at the end of the first film, determined to get revenge on the Turtles. Discovering that a canister of the radioactive ooze that spawned the Turtles is still in the sewers, he send his men to obtain it and kidnap scientist Jordan Perry (a slumming David Warner), who is forced to create a pair of mutant monsters, Tokka and Rahzar, out of a snapping turtle and a wolf. These child-like creatures are sent to battle the Turtles, who must rescue the professor and find an antidote while battling Shredder and The Foot (and really – what sort of name is that for a gang?). Joining the Turtles this time is pizza delivery boy / martial artist Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr).

There’s less weapon use in this film – possibly in an attempt to avoid any censorship issues – and more humour, with the cartoonish Tokka and Rahzar providing plenty of light relief even during the dramatic moments. Otherwise, it’s pretty much more of the same. The film feels closer to the second episode of a TV series than a stand-alone project, which I guess is no bad thing. But there’s also an appearance by Vanilla Ice, which is definitely a bad thing. On the whole though, if you enjoyed the first film, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (referred to on the disc as Turtles in Time, though this title doesn’t appear on the film) seems to be the least popular with hardcore fans of the series. While not wanting to question the opinions of such discerning viewers, I’ll fly in the face of fashion by saying that this is the most fun of the three, if only because it tries to do something a little different. When April O’Neil finds an ancient Japanese antique sceptre at a flea market, she finds herself suddenly transported back to feudal Japan, swapping places with a Japanese prince. The Turtles all use the sceptre to travel back in time to rescue her, but become involved in a battle between two warring clans, as well as confronting sinister English trader Walker (Stuart Wilson), who is intending to sell guns to one side of the conflict.

This movie at least attempts to expand the horizons of the series and has a much more epic scope than previous films. The straight scenes of feudal Japan are actually pretty impressive, and the slightly redesigned Turtles, with newly mottled skin, seem slightly better too. It’s interesting to see them regarded by the Japanese people as Kappas – the water demons of Japanese mythology (not to mention Monkey and films like Underwater Love!) – and the characters are actually given a chance to develop slightly. Not much, but slightly. On the downside, the return of Casey Jones seems unnecessary, especially as he has nothing to do (Elias Koteas also plays Whit, a shifty member of Walker’s crew). I found this third episode of the series to be generally much more enjoyable than the previous two. But I’m prepared to admit that I may simply have been worn down after hours of Turtle action.

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Still, in for a penny, in for a pound I say, and having waded through the original movies (and no, I’ve felt no need to explore the recent revival), it was time to explore the cartoons. I’d somehow contrived to be sent a new DVD collection – four individual releases that are sold as a ‘best of’ for each of the four Turtle characters, with three episodes per disc. As a sampler of the show, it’s a pretty effective introduction, if a sometimes confusing one. While you can watch these as individual episodes, it’s clear that there is an overarching narrative to the series – or at least stories that continue from earlier ones. That’s lost in this collection, obviously, as each disc of episodes is selected based on the emphasis on the turtle of choice. Anyone coming to this unfamiliar with the series – like me – will be thrown in at the deep end, not knowing who most of the characters are, and some episodes make reference to others that have come before, not all of which are included in this collection. I don’t want to over-emphasise things – this is not exactly a complex narrative, though it’s a bit odd seeing inter-connected episodes out of sequence depending on which disc you watch first. It probably makes sense to watch complete seasons than these samples if you are a fan (then again, I imagine devoted fans already own the box sets).

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What the twelve episodes featured in these discs reveal is that, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, the series had a decent level of animation – not great, but certainly on a level with any other animated show of the time. The dismissal of the show as a crudely animated commercial for toys is a tad unfair. Of course, the show was essentially a toy commercial, but it’s a lot better than you might expect, in terms of visual style, animation quality and actual storyline. The four Turtles have arguably more distinct personalities here than in the movies, as does human TV reporter April O’Neill, who acts as a sort of sidekick alongside rat guru Splinter. As well as regular villain Shredder – a remarkably incompetent megalomaniac – there’s Lord Krang, a talking brain from Dimension X who eventually gets a robot body as well as a collection of ridiculous but amusing villains who are a mixed back of comic book bad guys and evildoers straight from Scooby Doo. Sometime associate Casey Jones pops up in one episode, and there’s a female mutant at one point, Mona Lisa, who could’ve become a regular but was reduced to odd appearances.

This is, of course, generally juvenile stuff, but the dialogue is occasionally knowing – in one episode, Donatello dresses as ‘The Dark Turtle’, which is essentially Batman. “You’re bats” says one fellow Turtle, only to be told “you can’t say that, it’s probably copyright infringement”. It’s the sort of gag that might go over the heads of the target audience but is amusing for adult viewers. Similarly, there are regular pop culture references to keep you amused (including gags about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and mockery of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and sometimes breaking of the fourth wall (“if I have one more roof dropped on my head, I’m sitting out the rest of this episode”).

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While there is ‘violence’, in reality it’s no worse than the cartoon action series that came before (and mild in comparison to Tom and Jerry. What’s more, it shows a certain restraint – there’s gunplay, but it’s strictly laser guns – in this universe, no one uses bullets, and of course, no one is killed or seriously hurt. And there’s a lot of humour, a degree of sentiment and fairly solid life lessons along the way too, making this ideal juvenile entertainment.

Although old-school cel animation, I imagine this show would still stand up well as entertainment for young kids (unless you are the sort of humourless prig who frets about your kids seeing cartoon violence where good always triumphs over evil). And you’ll be relieved to know that having once been retitled (Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles) and heavily cut for British consumption, the episodes – like the movies – are now amusingly uncut and rated ‘U’, despite nunchuck action galore. To the surprise of no-one, this has not resulted in a massive increase in childhood martial arts injuries or gang warfare.

I’m glad to have finally filled a pop culture gap in my life, though I can’t seriously say that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are going to have any long-term meaning for me. But I can certainly understand why they had such an impact in the 1980s, and why those who grew up enjoying their adventures have such affection for them even now. Now I just have to explore the original comic books…

DAVID FLINT

BUY TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES FILMS, COMICS AND TOYS USA / UK

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