MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III (1993)
Director: Stuart Gillard
Anyone who grew up at the end of the 1980s will more than likely remember the cultural phenomenon sparked by an insanely successful cartoon starring a quartet of anthropomorphic tortoises known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You couldn't go anywhere in the late-'80s without seeing something related to the Ninja Turtles, because they were absolutely everywhere. And as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Turtles were translated from their animated form into a pair of successful live-action movies released by New Line Cinema. But as the '90s rolled on, the popularity of the Ninja Turtles began to fade, as all big trends eventually do. However, New Line must not have gotten that memo, because in the waning days of Turtlemania, they released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. The movie performed modestly at the box office and did double its budget, but it was nowhere near the quality of the previous two films in the series. The Ninja Turtles were slowly disappearing from the public consciousness, and this movie's weakness was quite possibly a catalyst for it. Let's see where it went wrong, shall we?
In an abandoned subway station beneath the streets of New York City, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles train under the watchful eye of their master Splinter (the voice of James Murray). Just as their latest training session ends, April O'Neil (Paige Turco) arrives with bags full of goodies she picked up at a local flea market. She gives Leonardo (the voice of Brian Tochi) a book about historical samurai swords; Michelangelo (the voice of Robbie Rist) receives an ugly lampshade that, if this were A Christmas Story, would probably be considered a major award; Donatello (the voice of Corey Feldman) is given an antique radio, and Raphael (the voice of Tim Kelleher) gets a fedora. Her gift for Splinter is an ancient Japanese scepter. But before April can give it to him, a brilliant flash of light from the scepter causes April to vanish and be replaced by a Japanese man.
We learn that this stranger's name is Kenshin (Henry Hayashi), and that he's from feudal Japan circa 1603. (Yes, I know the poster to your right says 1593. But the movie itself says 1603, so I'm assuming the guy in New Line's marketing department made a typo that nobody caught.) Kenshin is facing reproaching for disgracing his estranged father and the local daimyo Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono). Norinaga has been engaged in a war against those who resist him, a war that Kenshin disapproves of. However, Norinaga is facing pressure from a shady British tradesman named Walker (Stuart Wilson), who seems to instigate Norinaga and push him to accept a shipment of guns and cannons.
Back in the twentieth century, the Turtles quickly deduce that the scepter is actually something of a time machine, and due to the oh-so-wonderful laws of physics, April has replaced Kenshin in his time. And being the science whiz he is, Donatello also figures that if they're going to bring April back to the future, they've got about sixty hours before the window of opportunity closes for good and they're all stranded in the past. So they've got to get to work. With Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) hanging around entertain Kenshin and their four replacements, the Turtles hitch a ride to the seventeenth century. They arrive to find themselves on horseback, with Michelangelo not really getting the hang of it and ending up unconscious in the middle of the woods before a group of the anti-Norinaga rebels kidnap him and steal the scepter.
As night falls, the other three are forced to search for April without Michelangelo. Disguised as honor guards, they sneak their way into Lord Norinaga's castle and follow Walker's sidekick Niles (John Aylward) to the dungeon. There they discover April, who Norinaga blamed for Kenshin's mysterious disappearance and had imprisoned for witchcraft. The Turtles stage a jailbreak and free both April and a prisoner named Whit (Elias Koteas in a dual role), then head into the forest. But they aren't able to bask in the forest's tranquility for long, as they're ambushed by more rebels that mistakenly believe the Turtles are members of Norinaga's honor guard. The rebel leader, Mitsu (Vivian Wu), unmasks Donatello and is taken aback because he is like "the other one." Realizing that they have Michelangelo, the three Turtles happily agree to return to their village. But once they arrive, they discover Walker and his henchmen torching the village in search of the scepter. The reunited Turtles fight them off and rescue a young boy named Yoshi (Travis A. Moon) from inside a burning building, which convinces the grateful villagers to let them stay. But things aren't exactly worth celebrating, as they also learn that the scepter has gone missing. The Turtles must find a way to return home before it's too late, as well as find a way out of the war they have found themselves in the middle of.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is something of an enigma. The movie certainly isn't for fans of the comics, and I'm not sure it's for fans of the cartoon either. I'm not really sure who the movie's target demographic is. I was a devoted Ninja Turtle fan on the precipice of my eleventh birthday when Turtles III was released, and I still didn't believe the movie was anywhere near as good or as entertaining as the previous two movies or the cartoon. It seems most moviegoers knew it too, since although it doubled its budget, the movie only pulled in 54 percent of what Turtles II made at the domestic box office, and only 31 percent of what the original film made domestically. The movie's disappointing success is probably because Turtles III seems like one final effort to make a few bucks off a phenomenon that was on its last legs. The popularity of the Turtles was beginning to wane and at the time of the third movie's release, the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers were about five months away from stealing away all their limelight. I mean, Turtles III was so disappointing that I'd say it was pretty much the death knell for Turtlemania as the children of the '80s knew it.
Not everything about the movie is bad, I'll give it that much. The set designers and wardrobe department did a great job, the action is decent, a handful of the jokes are actually funny, and the casting department makes up for some of Turtles II's flaws by bringing back Corey Feldman and Elias Koteas and letting the Turtles use their weapons for a change. But everything else about it... meh. The screenplay written by Stuart Gillard is one of the movie's bigger faults, I'd say. The idea of taking the Ninja Turtles out of their element isn't a bad idea, but it isn't accomplished well. There's not a whole lot that actually resembles the spirit or charm of the first two movies. The Turtles are the type of characters where everything is done with an irreverent smirk, but aside from a few corny pop culture references, everything not set in modern-day New York City is depicted as being almost as serious as a heart attack. I mean, I don't think anybody was expecting to see the Turtles dropped into a turf war involving the leader of a feudal society and a gun-peddling sleazebag.
Most of Gillard's jokes don't exactly work either. There are a few bits that I liked, such as the scenes with Casey teaching Norinaga's honor guard about television, hockey, and nightclubs, but a lot of the humor is goofy to the point of cheesiness. I mean, working in a lame Wayne's World reference? Yeah, Wayne's World was a big hit a year before Turtles III came out, but I really don't think the crowd that watches Saturday Night Live or saw Wayne's World is the same crowd that would be seeing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I have this notion that Gillard was sitting in his office writing the script, thinking to himself, "Let's have the Turtles say 'schwing' when they find April showing a little leg. That'll be hilarious!" Well, guess what? The only amusement it draws is the giggling that is usually followed by the phrase, "That's so lame." And to tell the truth, a hefty majority of the jokes in the movie are like that.
You know, the second movie moved the franchise closer to the same silly nature of the cartoon. They may have ditched Casey Jones, but the Vanilla Ice cameo and the Bebop and Rocksteady wannabes really said that if the first movie was for fans of the comics, Turtles II was for fans of the animated series. Why Gillard couldn't have written a movie that continued that, I have no idea. A more comedic, fantasy-oriented slant would have at least fit some franchise expectations, but the plot seems like the decision was made to drop the Turtles into The Last Samurai. I certainly don't fault Gillard for at least trying to do something different with the Turtles, but I'd have much rather seen the Turtles fight Baxter Stockman or Krang. Who would you rather see as a villain sparring with four anthropomorphic turtles: a mutant half-man/half-housefly and a talking brain from Dimension X that drives around in a tank that looks like the Death Star, or a 17th-century Japanese warlord and the guy that leads the British version of the National Rifle Association? No, I don't know if they could have done a convincing Krang or Technodrome on a $20,000,000 budget, but David Cronenberg did The Fly for $15,000,000, so I'm sure they could have had Baxter Stockman as a villain. But nope, we instead get this lame time travel story. I guess you could say I'm not exactly a fan of the plot.
I will give credit to Gillard for his decent work as a director, though. His work isn't groundbreaking, nothing that would have earned him any award nominations. But Gillard and cinematographer David Gurfinkel handle things well enough, with the action sequences being where they do their best work. It doesn't save the movie from being thoroughly mediocre at best, but hey, at least Gillard makes the movie look decent. At least it helps that the movie has the benefit of another strong music score composed by John Du Prez. If there's one constant in the live-action Turtles trilogy, it's been Du Prez and his fantastic music. His music for Turtles III naturally has a very East Asian feel at times, while maintaining a style similar to his music for the first two films at other times.
The cast is also acceptable, but there aren't really too many standout players. Brian Tochi, Corey Feldman, Robbie Rist, and Tim Kellehner all do a decent job voicing the Turtles, but James Murray isn't nearly half as good as Kevin Clash's work as Splinter from the previous movies. Paige Turco reprises her role from Turtles II, but it appears that she's returning to a different character, one that seems to have been changed from the mother figure she was previously to almost being one of the boys. Turco does look like she's having a lot of fun, playing the role well despite the lame writing. Stuart Wilson, Sab Shimono, and Vivian Wu are all acceptable if not almost forgettable, and Harry Hayashi and Travis A. Moon are complete non-factors, but the true standout actor in the movie is Elias Koteas. Koteas is given next to nothing to do with the "Whit" character, but his scenes with the honor guard played by Mak Takano, Steven Getson Akahoshi, Kent Kim, and Ken Kensei are the best parts of the whole thing. Why they didn't bring him back for Turtles II, I have no idea, because both Koteas and the character are great. You know, if it were up to me, I'd have completely forgone the idea of doing a third Turtles movie and done a Casey Jones spin-off instead. That would have been a lot more fun than this mediocre waste of time.
But if I had to choose what I thought was the absolute worst part of the movie, it would be the ungodly atrocious effects designed by All Effects Company. The producers must not have been able to convince Jim Henson's Creature Shop to come back, which is a shame. The bodies of the four turtles wouldn't be completely horrible if it weren't for the unrealistic rubbery skin and weird spots that weren't there in the first two movies, but the faces look like someone decided to create four oversized reptilian Furbys and put them in a movie. I mean, there's even some instances where the Turtles speak, and their mouths don't move at all. That could more than likely be blamed on the sound editors, but it's still lame. And how about that hideous animatronic Splinter? It looks more like something you'd see at Chuck E. Cheese's instead of something that looks, you know, believable.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is a very good example of how an attempt to keep a dying franchise afloat can go horribly wrong. I mean, I'm sure that even the most devoted Ninja Turtles fan has a hard time watching this tragic misfire. I don't even know if I can wrap this thing up properly, because I'm so astounded that this movie is what it is. There are a couple of entertaining things about Turtles III, but not enough to avoid being outweighed by the bad. I'm going to give it two stars, and a recommendation only to those people who absolutely have to see anything and everything related to the Ninja Turtles. And after watching this again, I can't say I'm surprised that it took Hollywood fourteen years to release another Ninja Turtles movie.
Final Rating: **