The first issue of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) was published in May of 1984. Since then, the TMNT have gone on to achieve worldwide mainstream success thanks not only to their original comics run but also a number of influential cartoons, videogames, and wave-upon-wave of action figures. This year, I’m emphasising third entries and time travel shenanigans in the popular franchise every Tuesday in May!
Released: 19 March 1993
Director: Stuart Gillard
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $21 million
Stars: Brian Tochi/Mark Caso, Corey Feldman/Jim Raposa, Tim Kelleher/Matt Hill, Robbie Rist/David Fraser, Vivian Wu, Sab Shimono, Stuart Wilson, Paige Turco, and Elias Koteas
When reporter April O’Neil (Turco) purchases an ancient Japanese sceptre that allows those simultaneously holding it in different centuries to switch places in time, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles travel to feudal Japan to rescue her from the clutches of the villainous Lord Norinaga (Shimono), teaming up with rebel leader Misu (Wu) and, in the process, opposing Norinaga’s oppressive campaign against her people.
As I’ve detailed previously, the TMNT were originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to be a violent pastiche of comic book troupes before being catapulted to mainstream success by the unbelievably popular 1987 cartoon. It was probably inevitable that this would lead to a live-action feature film, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990) proved to be both a technically impressive financial success and a cult favourite. Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Pressman, 1991) received comparatively mixed reviews, it still did well at the box office and I, for one, regard it as an under-rated entry in the franchise. The TMNT’s brand remained popular and successful, however, but there were a number of noticeable changes made for the third live-action film; first of all, Jim Henson’s studio was no longer involved in the production, and the animatronics created by All Effects Company were far less impressive. Secondly, their most iconic enemy, Oroku Saki/The Shredder, was entirely absent due to a slight case of death; and, finally, the film featured a time travel plot that took the narrative out of the sewers and often has it erroneously referred to as Turtles in Time. Although some of the original cast members returned after skipping the second film, and despite debuting at number one at the U.S. box office, TMNT III’s $54.4 million worldwide gross made it the least successful of the films so far, and the film was universally panned. Thanks to its dumbed down plot and characterisations, nonsensical narrative, and childish humour, TMNT III is widely regarded as one of the lowest points in the franchise; plans for a fourth film were scrapped and it would be nearly ten years before the TMNT made it back to cinema screens.
Rather than opening up on the streets of New York City, a location more than prominent to the TMNT and the previous films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III begins in 1603 Japan and finds Prince Kenshin (Henry Hayashi) being captured by samurai warriors as Mitsu watches on helplessly. We’re then reintroduced to the TMNT, still in their awesome abandoned subway lair, not through a fun or gritty action scene but, instead, through a musical montage that has the four show off their dance moves alongside their ninja skills. Sadly, this is one of the few times that the TMNT will actually use their weapons in the film, and an early warning sign that the film is going to be focused much more on slapstick buffoonery than its predecessors. Things haven’t changed too much for the TMNT since the last film; they’re still pushed to hone their ninja skills by their master and father figure, Splinter (James Murray), still obsessed with pizza, and Raphael (Kelleher/Hill) is still the gruff hot-head of the group who’s constantly frustrated that all of their efforts to keep people safe go unrecognised by the general public since they’re forced to hide underground. Because of this tantrum, he storms off in a huff and misses the gift that their ace reporter human friend April O’Neil shows off to them: an ancient Japanese sceptre she bought from a flea market.
Back in the past, Kenshin, the son of powerful warlord Lord Norinaga, also stumbles upon the same sceptre alongside a scroll depicting the TMNT (or “kappa”, as he calls them) and reads aloud the inscription on the sceptre. This activates the sceptre in the present time and causes April and Kenshin to switch places (and, inexplicably, clothing thanks to the sceptre’s magic); since Donatello (Feldman/Raposa) “does machines”, he’s somehow able to use his computer to study the sceptre and work out that it operates by switching individuals of equal mass and weight in time. Oh, and there’s also an arbitrary time limit on how long the TMNT have to rescue April, meaning they only have sixty hours to complete the mission before the space/time continuum goes “out of sync”. Swapping places with four of Lord Norinaga’s Honour Guard, the TMNT find themselves garbed in ceremonial armour and in the middle of a raid upon a nearby village and, in the confusion, Michelangelo (Rist/Fraser) is captured by Mitsu and her fledgling rebellion. Luckily, he and the others soon earn the respect and admiration of the rebels after they save the life of young Yoshi (Travis A. Moon), one of the few things that Leonardo (Tochi/Caso) gets to do beyond showcasing his bizarre lack of brainpower. This, as much as the purity of the unpolluted landscape, brings Raphael a serenity he never knew existed; he also forms a bond with Yoshi, surprising himself by imparting advice about the boy’s temper and desire to fight rather than have fun and enjoy his childhood. While Donatello and Leonardo are determined to construct a replica sceptre to return them home, Mikey and Raph are actually tempted to remain in the past, where they’re accepted and revered.
There’s no question that Lord Norinaga is a poor substitute for the far more intimidating Shredder; I think one of the most undeniable failings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is that it lacks a strong, iconic villain like the Shredder for the TMNT to go up against. A proud man who believes in maintaining his position and family name through power, Lord Norinaga is a power-hungry warlord shamed by his son’s rebellious ways and with a staunch belief in the might of his army. Lord Norinaga is aided by Walker (Wilson), an unscrupulous English trader who gleefully supplies him with gunpowder and other armaments and resources for his war. Walker scoffs at the Japanese clan’s ancient superstitions and their out-dated ways and is more of a futurist, believing in the unrivalled power of guns and artillery rather than ancient relics and fantasies. Surrounded by a gaggle of underappreciated buffoons, Walker is nevertheless intrigued by April’s spontaneous arrival in feudal Japan and goes to great lengths to track down the missing sceptre, including sacking a nearby village using his superior weapons and manipulating Lord Norinaga into purchasing his cannons and ammunitions in order to fend off the “demons” who now threaten his empire. A sneering, manipulative, and calculating opportunist, Walker delights in the fortune and power recent events bring him but is more of a pantomime villain than a truly intimidating foe; Michelangelo likens him to Clint Eastwood, but he’s more like the late, great Rik Mayall in his appearance and mannerisms.
Although she played a prominent supporting role in the previous two films as an audience surrogate and a valued ally to the TMNT, April gets quite a bit more screen time in this third entry; when transported to the past, she’s branded a witch by Lord Norinaga and locked in a dungeon and the TMNT’s entire motivation this time around is going back in time to rescue her. Although April spends much of the film either locked in a cell or in need of rescue, April proves herself to be rather feisty and capable; she tries to play upon the superstitions of her captors to in an attempt to intimidate them and frequently hurls abuse their way. Since the TMNT need to swap places with those from the past, Michelangelo brings in their old ally, Casey Jones (Koteas), to watch over Splinter, their lair, and the time-displaced Japanese warriors. Sadly, this means that there really isn’t anything substantial for Casey to do in the film except babysit and be used for questionable comic relief, but Koteas does play a dual role in the film as April finds herself locked up alongside Whit after he unsuccessfully tried to lead a mutiny against Walker. The film is also populated by a number of new characters; Kenshin is the rebellious son of the warmongering Lord Norinaga, who openly opposes his father’s dreams of conquest and is anxious to get back to the past and reunite with Mistu. Though the headstrong leader of a vastly outnumbered rebellion, Mitsu also ends up becoming little more than a damsel in distress when Whit betrays them and takes her, and the real sceptre, to Lord Norinaga in a misguided attempt to broker a deal with Walker.
On the surface, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III tries to coast off of the success and reputation of its predecessors and the mammoth franchise as a whole; it recreates the subway set from the second film, returns many of the same voice actors from the last two movies, and even reuses the soundtrack from the first film, none of which really help to improve its presentation. While the first movie was (and, in my opinion, still is) the perfect blend between the violent source material and the more family-friendly cartoon series, the second leaned a bit more into humour and cartoony shenanigans; however, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III takes all of these latter elements and brings them right to the forefront. No longer are the TMNT shrouded by the darkness of night (which really doesn’t help hide how inferior their suits are) and they’ve been distilled down to the most basic of characterisations. Even Leonardo, typically the level-headed and intelligent leader of the group, is portrayed as a complete idiot here, and the focus of their dialogue is now firmly on cringey pop culture references, catchphrases, and idiotic statements that will probably make little kids laugh but will leave older viewers rolling their eyes. It is, essentially, a live-action cartoon and, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it is a noticeable downgrade considering the first movie was also a live-action cartoon but it didn’t treat its audience like they were juvenile idiots or pander to the lowest common denominator. Here, all nuance is completely cast aside; the TMNT are generally too busy making fools of themselves and messing about, so when heartfelt moments like Raph’s bond with Yoshi do occur they fall flat because of all the tomfoolery that proceeds them.
It’s undeniable that the TMNT suits, while still impressive practical and animatronic effects, have taken a noticeable downgrade. The actors seem to be able to move more freely in these suits, to be fair, but they look far less believable and much more like plastic, rubbery outfits than in the last two films. The heads are easily the worst aspect; the eyes are far less expressive, the mouths don’t sync up as well, and everything just feels much more cheap and low quality. By far the worst offender, though, his Splinter; not only does the wise old rat sensei look far worse than his previous incarnations, but he’s rarely ever shown in full body in a clear attempt by the filmmakers to hide his limitations and mostly just peeps out through window frames or sits in his chair. The action sequences are equally underwhelming this time around; while the TMNT are far more spritely in this film, and fights are filmed in full daylight, the TMNT continue to use their weapons either defensively or for comedic effect and everything seems far more choreographed and dumbed down, which is a shame considering how many more armed opponents the TMNT have to contend with in this jaunt. Additionally, the film is lumbered with an inexplicable time travel plot that really doesn’t seem to gel all that well with the atmosphere of the previous films; obviously, the TMNT have endured similar fantastical plots in the cartoons and comics but, for me, the natural next step is either interdimensional travel or facing an otherworldly, sci-fi threat like Krang and Dimension-X. Clearly, the decision to set the film in feudal Japan was a budgetary one, and that’s a shame as there was no way that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III could hope to out-do the mutated opponents the TMNT faced in the last film when they’re stuck in the 17th century for the majority of the runtime.
With time fast running out, the TMNT have no choice but to join forces with the rebels in an all-out assault on Castle Norinaga in order to rescue Mitsu and reclaim the sceptre. This leads to them discovering that Lord Norinaga’s ancestor was previously defeated by four legendary kappa, and the odd insinuation that they’re somehow descended from these mythological creatures. It also involves a number of fight scenes pitting the TMNT and Mitsu against Lord Norinaga’s guards, and the rebels against his forces, though any kind of tension or danger is largely mitigated by an overuse of comical sound effects and embarrassing one-liners. Leo finally gets something significant to do, however, when he gets into an intense sword fight with Lord Norinaga that sees the warlord trapped in a giant bell after being bested. All the fighting bizarrely stops when Walker and his men hold everyone at gunpoint, such is the fear of his weapons, but he flees in terror after Leo ducks into his shell to avoid being killed by his cannon. Although Walker distracts them by throwing the sceptre at them to cover his escape, Whit ultimately finishes him off by blasting him with a flaming projectile and sending Walker plunging to his poorly-realised demise in the sea below. Afterwards, the TMNT briefly debate whether they should return to the present; while Donnie is eager to return home and Leo considers staying, Mikey and Raph are strongly tempted to stay since Raph feels appreciated there and Mikey has, apparently, fallen for Mitsu. Ultimately, after a brief fake-out, all four return home, with April, and the status quo is restored, with Kenshin and Mistu being reunited and the TMNT enjoying one last embarrassing dance number to bring this mess to an end.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was one of the first movies I remember seeing at the cinema; like almost everyone back then, I was a big TMNT fan and excited to see them on the big screen, but I honestly don’t remember what I thought to it back in the day and barely even remember going to see it. In the years since, I’ve rarely returned to the film since there are far better TMNT options out there, so it seems redundant to waste my time watching one of the more inferior productions. It doesn’t help that everyone and their mother has talked at length about how bad this film is compared to its predecessors, which really doesn’t make me excited to drop the disc in when I could just watch the first, and infinitely superior, movie instead. I guess there’s enough here for little kids to find some enjoyment; it’s very cartoony and full of one-liners and slapstick and daft fight scenes, but it’s just depressing to see how the property got some dumbed down so quickly. The whole production looks and feels so much cheaper, from the suits to the voice acting and the plot, and I’ll always find it odd how the comics and animated stories were able to do a better job appealing to their core demographic than a big-budget live-action production. Even die-hard TMNT fans will struggle with this one, and it’s best left to gather dust on the shelf.
Could Be Better
Did you enjoy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III? How do you think the film holds up against the other TMNT films? Which of the TMNT is your favourite and why? What did you think to the time travel plot and the increased emphasis on comedic slapstick? Would you like to see another live-action TMNT film using modern technology to create more practical versions of the TMNT? How are you celebrating the TMNT’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on the TMNT, leave a comment down below.
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