Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)

By 1993, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise continued to be enormously popular among kids. However, its total grasp on the kiddy zeitgeist was starting to slip. Critically acclaimed cartoon adaptations of popular superheroes, like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “X-Men,” had started to inch in on the Turtles’ established territory. The Ninja Turtles were no longer as hip among the playground crowd. These things I can attest to, as I was actually there. A few months after “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” was released, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would premiere on American television, stealing the TMNT’s martial arts-flavored thunder and quickly eclipsing the older series in popularity. But before that happened, the Green Machine went back to theaters and back in time.

The film begins with the Heroes Four at ease, practicing via synchronized dance moves in their lair. April soon climbs down the ladder, baring gifts from a recent vacation to Japan. Among those gifts is a strange golden scepter. When holding it, April is thrown back in time to 17th century Japan. A Japanese prince is teleported to the modern day in her place. Determined to rescue their friend, the Turtles quickly figure out the mechanics of the magical device, heading into the past after her. Once in Edo era Nippon, the four turtles are embroiled in a plot involving an English trader selling guns to the samurai lord, eager to use the weapons in an upcoming war, something his son and the son's girlfriend are strictly against.

“Ninja Turtles III” is not well regarded by the franchise fandom. To put it mildly. Most consider the film the long-running series’ nadir. (Which isn’t very fair, considering this is a franchise where Venus and Carter are both things.) As a kid, I remember being disappointed in the film because the villain wasn’t Krang. Now that Shredder’s dead, that’s the second most important member of the TMNT’s rogue gallery, right? Or how about Baxter Stockman, Rat King, Leatherhead or Slash? I suspect I wasn’t alone in that disappointment. The film, instead, breaks wildly from Ninja Turtle canon, featuring an original story populated entirely with new characters. The film takes the characters out of their traditional urban setting, putting them in totally different time period. Hell, it’s a Ninja Turtles movie where ninjitsu plays a very small role. The Mutant Teens spent most of the film dressed as Samurais. Yet it’s not fair to judge Part III for what it isn’t.

So why do people hate this movie so much? The number one reason is doubtlessly the steep drop in quality concerning the special effects. The Jim Henson Creature Shop, who provided the fantastic suits for the last two films, passed on this one, leaving the effects duties to less disciplined hands. The animatronic heads are less expressive, with blockier faces and more exaggerated features. Whenever they have to talk or express emotion, the fakeness of the suits become apparent. The Turtles’ look more rubbery and their skin is dotted with odd liver spots. Splinter, meanwhile, is obviously a hand-puppet, as you never see his legs. While the last two films convinced you that these robotic creations were real characters, here they look like the unconvincing special effects they are.

There are other reasons “Ninja Turtles III” is considered the shitty one. The film has an obnoxious sense of humor. Throughout the entire film, the Turtles repeatedly drop random pop culture references, many of which have little relevance to the actual plot. There’s no reason for the characters to mention the Addams Family, Elvis, or Clint Eastwood and even fewer reasons for the film to find such references inherently hilarious. While the Turtles are in the past, Casey Jones has to take care of four ancient samurais in modern day New York. He does this by teaching them hockey and taking them out to a dance club, which leads to broad, embarrassing comedy. In the past, the Turtles obsess over Wet Willies and mock a fat dungeon master. It’s not sophisticated, is what I’m saying.

Moreover, the movie’s plot isn’t very interesting. Some consider the time travel device too far fetched but I don’t think that washes, considering the silly things Turtle fans do accept. Walker is a fairly generic bad guy, motivated by simple greed. The exact reasons he and Daimyo are working together aren’t elaborated on much. The looming threat of war is mostly kept off-screen. The film is also poorly paced. After arriving in the past, there are some action scenes with the Turtles attempting to rescue Mikey. After that, the story relaxes into a long, leisurely sequence of the Turtles hanging out in the village. Donnie is preoccupied with going home. Raph befriends a young child who he thinks is too serious. Mikey, meanwhile, starts to fall for Mitsu, the human samurai chick that is actually the time-displaced Kenshin’s love interest. Not until the very end, when the Turtles make their way back to the castle, does the plot begin to move again. And that plot is a fairly uninspired MacGuffin chase, the Turtles chasing after the scepter that can take them back home.

But I don’t hate “TMNT III” and am coming awfully close to calling it underrated. The film tries something different with the characters. The relationship Raphael forms with young Yoshi comes close to being touching, as it finds the turtle confronting his own anger. Michelangelo developing feelings for a human female might strike you as odd but it forms into an interesting storyline, especially when the turtle debates staying behind in the Feudal Japan. The story may be poorly paced but I appreciate the filmmakers attempting to tell a lower-key tale. Elias Koteas and Paige Turco are back and both give decent performances. Lame as the character may be, Stuart Wilson at least has some hammy fun as Walker. The action scenes are surprisingly well choreographed and features the Turtles using their weapons more then part 2 did.

The film still opened number 1 at the box office but didn’t have the staying power of the previous flicks. Despite plans for a fourth film, the series took an extended break from theaters. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” is ultimately a failure but it’s an interesting failure that attempted to take the franchise in a different direction. It didn’t do it well but at least it tried. [5/10]

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