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. Even now, the TMNT continue to be an influential and popular commodity, proving that some fads don’t die out…they just get stronger!
Released: 22 March 1991
Director: Michael Pressman
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $25 million
Stars: Brian Tochi/Mark Caso, Adam Carl/Leif Tilden, Laurie Faso/Kenn Troum, Robbie Rist/Mark Caso, Paige Turco, David Warner, Ernie Reyes, Jr., and David McCharen/François Chau
Having defeated their nemesis, Oroku Saki/The Shredder (McCharen/Chau), the TMNT begin to grow restless about being hidden in the shadows. When their friend, reporter April O’Neil (Turco), does a report on Techno Global Research Industries (TGRI), she uncovers a possible link to their past through the mysterious mutagenic “ooze”. However, the TMNT are in for the fight of their lives when Shredder returns bent on revenge and uses the ooze to create mutant minions of his own!
As I’ve explained before, the TMNT were originally a violent pastiche of comic book troupes created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird who were catapulted to mainstream success by the unbelievably popular 1987 cartoon. Perhaps inevitably, this led to a live-action feature film; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990) was a technically impressive financial success that went on to become a cult favourite. Interestingly enough, though, as much as I love that film, I actually saw its sequel first. Produced on a budget nearly twice that of the original, TMNT II featured a few cast changes and Eastman and Laird using every piece of their influence and creative control to ensure that Shredder’s henchmen from the cartoon didn’t appear in the film. Although TMNT II went on to receive mixed reviews due to it being dumbed down compared its predecessor, it stillmade over $78 million at the box office (though this was significantly less than the first film). However, despite TMNT II’s less-than-stellar reputation, I have an incredible amount of nostalgia for it and prefer to think of it as an under-rated entry in the franchise.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze picks up an unspecified (but presumably short) period of time after the end of the last movie; with the Foot Clan all-but eradicated following the Shredder’s apparent death, New York City has settled down quite a bit and it appears that all of its inhabitants have taken to stuffing their faces with delicious pizza rather than causing trouble to their fellow man.
Sorry, did I say all? Well, that’s not quite true as we find our new audience surrogate, Keno (Reyes, Jr.), stumbling upon a late-night robbery while out delivering (you guessed it) pizza. Though a bit of a little bastard (he body shames a couple of girls when they turn him down despite the fact that they look pretty fine to me), Keno’s a good kid just trying to make his own way so when he finds a group of low-level scumbags robbing a mall, he doesn’t hesitate to intervene using his impressive martial arts skills. While his intentions are good and he’s more than capable of holding his own, Keno is hopelessly outnumbered but, luckily for him, he’s saved when the TMNT intervene. Since their old sewer hideout was compromised in the last film, the TMNT and their mentor and father-figure, Splinter (Kevin Clash), have moved into the new apartment of their human friend, April O’Neil, and have filled their time by mostly ordering pizza. You may be wondering what happened to Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) between movies and, sadly, this answer is never provided; instead, Keno bonds with the TMNT after discovering them on one of his many trips to April’s apartment with their pizza and specifically forms a fast friendship with the similarly hot-headed Raphael (Faso/Troum).
Essentially, the TMNT remain very much the same characters as in the last film, although their more childish characteristics have been dialled up quite a bit; all of them, even field leader Leonardo (Tochi/Caso), are far more prone to spouting quips and surfer talk during fights and are growing incredibly restless with having to hide from the outside world, especially after saving the city. As before, it is Raphael who most strongly embodies this; when Keno finds that the Foot are actively enlisting new recruits, both characters explicitly disobey Splinter’s direct order not to investigate and Raph ends up captured as a result, apparently having learned nothing about the value of teamwork from the last movie. Of all the TMNT, it is Michelangelo (Rist/Caso) who again best encompasses the TMNT’s buffoonery; he’s the first one to spout a pop culture reference, lapse into tomfoolery, or incur a punishment from Splinter for his foolishness, and yet, despite all of that, he actually ends up being instrumental in defeating the Shredder’s mutant goons.
The TMNT’s immature and restless nature is of considerable aggravation to April, who is torn between enjoying the company of her strange friends and finding their laziness and untidiness irritating in her cramped apartment. Similarly, Splinter tries to emphasise that his “sons” cannot ever hope to be a part of normal society and most devote themselves to the life of ninjas, hiding in the shadows in order to protect them from reprisals. When April’s news report on TGRI promises to answer lingering questions about their past, the TMNT are excited to investigate further, especially Donatello (Carl/Tilden). However, Donnie is disheartened to learn from Professor Jordan Perry (Warner) that their creation was simply a mistake caused when one of TGRI’s canisters of mutagenic ooze was lost down a sewer some fifteen years ago.
With the Foot in disarray at the start of the film, Tatsu’s (Toshishiro Obata/Michael McConnohie) hopes of taking the reins are almost instantly supplanted by the returning Shredder, who pulls himself from the wreckage of his defeat, crafts himself a far more fearsome-looking armour, and specifically sends the best of his few remaining men to follow April in order to enact revenge against the TMNT. In the process, the Shredder acquires the final canister of the mutagenic ooze and arranges for Perry to be taken hostage so that he can use the substance to create mutant minions of his own. The results are not the more familiar Bebop and Rocksteady but are, instead the infantile Tokka (Frank Welker/Kurt Bryant) and Rahzar (Frank Welker/Mark Ginther) who immediately (and amusingly) imprint on Shredder as their “Mama” and pose a significant physical threat due to their sheer size and ferocity.
While I can understand people lamenting that the sequel adopts more of the kid-friendly archetypes from its animated counterpart than the first film, I don’t really feel like this is a detriment to Secret of the Ooze; the presence of additional jokes and gags doesn’t diminish from the film’s darker elements (the Shredder, in particular, cuts a far more intimidating figure thanks to his new armour). Additionally, having more slapstick elements doesn’t mean the film isn’t entertaining and amusing; if the first film was a compromise between the comic and the cartoon, the sequel is a pretty close live-action approximation of the cartoon and also delivers one of my favourite exchanges in the entire franchise (Mickey’s “Yeah, a little too Raph!” line is just golden!) The film also greatly benefits from its increased budget, which not only results in the TMNT’s impressive new lair in an abandoned subway but also far more exterior scenes in and around the city and even an appearance and song by rapper Vanilla Ice.
Additionally, and crucially, the turtle suits still look fantastic and are, arguably, better than in the first film. The film also features bigger and more elaborate fight scenes and the martial arts are still incredibly impressive considering how hot and heavy and uncomfortable the suits must be, though it can’t be denied that the action has been significantly dumbed down. Unlike in the first film, the TMNT never actually use their weapons in combat, which is startlingly emphasised in the opening fight scene where they dispatch each of the robbers using slapstick shenanigans and improvised weaponry from the mall. Cartoonish sound effects punctuate a lot of the fights and actions in the film but they are used relatively sparingly and to amusing effect and one of the standout sequences sees Raph and Keno sneaking their way into, and attempting to fight their way out of, the Foot’s new recruitment centre.
The addition of mutated antagonists for the TMNT to fight is a welcome one; while I would have much preferred Bebop and Rocksteady, Tokka and Rahzar are a more than suitable substitute thanks to their savage appearances. As you might expect, given how the film leans more towards the comedic than its predecessor, the two are also the source of much comedy; being “intellectually inferior” by Perry’s design to try and render them less of a threat, the two are easily manipulated by Shredder. Despite having the numbers advantage against Tokka and Rahzar, the TMNT are continuously overpowered by their greater strength and are forced to turn to a more scientific solution to defeat them and reduce them to harmless, regular animals. With his minions taken out of the picture, and driven to the edge by his numerous defeats and humiliations, the Shredder opts to drink the last vial of ooze and transforms himself into the hulking “Super Shredder” (Kevin Nash). The resulting finale is a far less technically impressive contest between the TMNT and their archenemy as, rather than making short work of the TMNT with his superior martial arts and skills like in the first film, the Super Shredder is little more than a silent, monstrous foe who goes on a self-destructive rampage on a pier. Though outmatched by Super Shredder’s incredible strength and unrequited rage, this ultimately doesn’t matter since Shredder ends up destroying himself for an ending that is a sadly anticlimactic end for their most famous enemy.
Even now, considering my unashamed fondness for the first film, I still find Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze a thoroughly entertaining watch in its own right. In many ways, the film is the perfect bridge between the original Mirage Comics and the popular 1980s cartoon since it has just the right blend of cartoonish buffoonery and action and dark, poignant moments. Sure, it’s disappointing that the TMNT don’t use their weapons offensively but it’s not like they were cutting their enemies up into bits and pieces in the first film and anyone who’s watched the cartoon would be more than used to this depiction of the TMNT by this point. The addition of mutated antagonists was a welcome one; while Bebop and Rocksteady would have been my first, preferred choice, it was a natural way to escalate the conflict from the first film. Featuring a bunch of genuinely amusing gags and moments, some fun action, and incredibly impressive practical suits and animatronics, The Secret of the Ooze has plenty of appealing features to it that make it a more than worthy follow-up to the last film and I will defend it until my dying day as being an entertaining experience in its own right that deserves far more attention than it gets.
Are you a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze? How do you think the film holds up against its predecessor and the other TMNT films? Which of the TMNT is your favourite and why? What did you think to Tokka and Rahzar and would you have preferred to see Bebop and Rocksteady instead? What did you think to the increased emphasis on comedic slapstick compared to the last film? 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.