There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are tickled to pieces by pizza-loving, sewer-dwelling, surfer-slang-slinging, mutant ninja turtle superheroes and those who aren't. It's an "I'm OK, You're OK" sort of thing, and I'm not here to judge, only to explain that my powers as a critic are at times limited. What can I say about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that the title doesn't economically express?
The Turtles, creations of comic-book artists Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, celebrate their 25th birthday this year, but they remain, of course, eternal teens. Their empire extended from comic books to TV animation, video games, and inevitably a movie franchise, which New Line has collected into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition. It's an opportunity to reappraise the four films in the Turtles brand, which the "heroes in a half-shell" would no doubt dub some combination of "awesome," "righteous," "radical," "bodacious," "bitchin'," "wicked," "gnarly," "radical," "tubular," and/or "hellacious." Or perhaps they'd just exhort, "Cowabunga, dudes!"
Hollywood's most famous Chinese business partner, Golden Harvest (Enter the Dragon, Supercop), co-produced the three live-action Turtles movies released in the early nineties, and though they're considered a mixed bag, they all offer roughly the same amount of entertainment. A CGI-animated movie co-produced by Warner and Weinstein breathed new life into the film franchise in 2007. All four films feature leader Leonardo (with blue mask and and ninjato), touchy Raphael (with red mask and sai), happy-go-lucky Michelangelo (orange mask and nunchaku), the ingenious Donatello (purple mask and bostaff); their spiritual and martial-arts master Splinter, a rat; and reporter April O'Neil (played by three different actresses over the course of the four movies). Three of the four films feature the Turtles' human vigilante ally Casey Jones and two feature archvillain Shredder.
The hallmark of the live-action films is surprisingly spry fight work from within impressive rubber suits. The films also wouldn't have gone anywhere without the creativity and skill of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which produced the Splinter puppet and animatronic Turtle masks with an ability to chatter and a fairly broad spectrum of expression. The CGI movie was a predictable step, which made the heroes more limber but somehow more ordinary. Die-hard fans particularly dump on the third movie, but it's not as far in quality from the rest. In fact, adjusting for trade-offs like greater fidelity to the source versus greater camp value, all of the pictures amount to roughly the same level of quality. But let's take a look:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) 94m. Thanks mostly to the impressive work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the first film has a reputation for being the best. But it's still dingy-looking in all other respects, literally dark, and populated with the weakest of jokes. The origin story is here, in brief, as is a signature battle with (The) Shredder and his minions The Foot Clan for control of the streets. It's ultimately a story of love and family, with lots of bonus ass-kicking. Donatello's martial arts stunt double is the talented young Ernie Reyes, Jr. (Sidekicks), who went on to have a important, unmasked role in the sequel. Judith Hoag plays reporter April O'Neil, Elias Koteas (Crash, Zodiac) plays Casey Jones, and a young Sam Rockwell has a small role as "Head Thug." And who's that performing Splinter? Kevin "Elmo" Clash. Stick around for Partners in Kryme's immortal rap "T-U-R-T-L-E Power!"
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) 89m. Sunnier and slightly funnier, the sequel is clearly an even goofier movie than its predecessor: a feat in itself. Mutant dandelions signify the surfacing of long-buried secrets about the source of the heroes' evolution, and Professor Jordan Perry (Royal Shakespeare Company vet David Warner) has the answers. Shredder is back to cause more trouble; his attempts to create mutant enemies for the Turtles go a bit sideways, resulting in the fuzzy-but-dangerous monster babies Tokka and Rahzar (a mutant wolf and mutant alligator snapping turtle). It's all incredibly stupid, but embraces the cheese as much as its pizza-loving heroes. I mean, how bad can a movie featuring a climactic rap-dance number by Vanilla Ice be ("Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go!")? Errr, forget I said anything.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1992) 96m. Sometimes dubbed "Turtles in Time," the third movie looks the cheapest, mostly due to the banishment of the Henson folks. Big mistake: their subtle work is sorely missed here. On the other hand, the campy story brings the series to new levels of absurdity, and as far as I'm concerned, the more, the merrier. This time, April and the boys stumble into a golden sceptre that can open the gates of time. Spirited to 1603 Japan, our heroes become embroiled in the rebellion of a humble village against a nasty warlord (Sab Shimono of Presumed Innocent) under the influence of British arms trader (Hot Fuzz's Stuart Wilson doing a Rickman-esque turn). Elias Koteas is enticed back by the dual role of Casey and his lookalike counterpart in feudal Japan. Order is restored in time for Splinter to make yet another funny at film's end.
TMNT (2007) 87m. The Turtles return in an animated flick that's for diehard fans only. How do we know? The film's title is simply TMNT. Though I'm sure Will Shortz could figure that out, methinks this isn't the movie for him. Anyway, kids today and the grown-up kids raised on the '90s cartoons may enjoy this for nostalgic reasons, but it's really just another lame movie about a dimensional portal sending monsters into our world. The Turtles, under the zen guidance of Splinter, must stop squabbling with each other long enough to kick the monsters' asses. The CGI works well for the Turtles and the cityscapes, but not so well for the humans or anything else. A noisy, muddled action-fest, TMNT does boast the starriest (voice) cast (Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Mako, and narrator Laurence Fishburne), but takes its campy source material far too seriously.
A little context will be helpful here: the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies have, in the past, looked awful on DVD, so their cleaned-up hi-def upgrade is an event for fans. That said, in their Blu-ray debut, the first three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies are too cheaply made to sparkle in hi-def. All three look consistently flat; the first has trouble with the shadowy look, which ends up coming across as a mess of gray grain. I'm honestly doubtful the source material could yield an image that looks any better, and the transfers do get stronger as they get younger and brighter. The mostly outdoors III offers the most detail, for a generally pleasing look. Of course, the 2007 CGI-animated TMNT (previously released on Blu) looks smashing, as it's freshly minted and was born in a computer. The story's pretty much the same with the audio, with steady improvements suddenly leaping in quality for the post-milennial entry. All four films get the best possible shake, though, from newly created Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes.
Bonus features are slender for the live-action entries. Disc One includes the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:28, SD) and "Sneak Peek: TMNT: Smash-Up Game for Wii" (1:04, HD), Disc Two includes the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:16, SD), and Disc Three includes, um, the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, SD).
Disc Four includes all of the previously released extras, starting with an enthusiastic and detailed commentary by writer/director Kevin Munroe. "TMNT: Voice Talent First Look" (5:04, SD) is a standard-issue promotional featurette with footage and comments from Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Laurence Fishburne, Munroe, and producers Thomas K. Gray and Paul Wang, the trailer-y "TMNT: Internet Reel" (3:52, SD), and "Donny's Digital Data Files" (1:57, SD) finds Wang and Munroe explaining the tech of the CGI animation, illustrated by glimpses of the various layers of the process. The rest are all chunks of footage frustratingly presented with non-optional Munroe commentary: the fully-rendered "'Mikey's Birthday Party' Full Sequence" (3:16, SD), "'Raphael's Rough House' Fight Test" (1:41, SD), the storyboard-to-CGI comparison "Monsters Come Alive" (2:50, SD), rough-form deleted sequence "Roof Top Workout" (5:35, SD), "'Still Wanna Fight?' Temp/Scratch Test" (3:11, SD), "Alternate Opening to the Movie" (3:03, SD), "Alternate Ending Temp/Scratch Test" (1:17, SD), and "Additional Scene: 'Splinter Gets Cake'" (2:09, SD).
And then there's the packaging: cute but somewhat impractical. There's a minimum of plastic involved here (good for the environment), because the box set is literally in a box: a cardboard pizza box scaled to enclose all the goodies. The four discs are housed in two layered plastic trays, one glued to the underside of the lid and one glued to the bottom of the box. Packed in the box are a black Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beanie, a special reprint of the first film's comic book adaptation (in glossy black and white), a list of the disc's contents, eight postcards featuring characters from the films and a reproduction sketch with a preprinted (unless I'm much-mistaken) Peter Laird "autograph." Two problems with the box: it's not any more durable than a real pizza box (so...not built to last) and once the beanie is removed, the box contains considerable negative space, meaning wasted space on your Blu-ray shelf. You win some, you lose some. At any rate, despite the lack of new extras, die-hard Turtles fans get all four films on Blu-ray, looking their best yet in hi-def.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer