Like many children of the ‘80s, I was a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I had a Ninja Turtles themed birthday party, pizza as the only food served. Though I’d seen the first two Ninja Turtles films in theaters, by the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was released I had lost interest in the quartet of mutated reptiles. Now that I’m older, I’m genuinely surprised at the staying power of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s creations. With the fifth cinematic installment of Ninja Turtles about to hit the screen, it is a perfect time to visit Ninja Turtles III, the film that unceremoniously ended the first onscreen incarnation of the heroes in a half-shell.
After a prologue in Feudal Japan, the film opens with a dance/training sequence involving the turtles. They bust a move and then practice their fighting moves in succession. Then April O’Neil (Paige Turco) arrives with bags of gifts which she recently acquired at a flea market. She distributes the gifts as intended, but the old Japanese scepter she holds starts going bananas, sending her back to Feudal Japan and sending a Japanese prince, Kenshin (Eidan Hanzei), back to modern times in her place. In Feudal Japan, Kenshin’s father, Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono), is negotiating with Walker (Stuart Wilson), a British trader, for the sale of guns so Norinaga can squash a rebellion against his rule, led by Kenshin’s lover Mitsu (Vivian Wu). Mistaken for a witch and imprisoned, April encounters a prisoner, Whit (Elias Koteas), who happens to look like the turtles’ good friend, Casey Jones (also Koteas). Now the turtles must travel back to Feudal Japan, rescue April, and bring peace to the region.
Unlike the film franchises of today that seem to mature with its audience, the Harry Potter films would be a prime example, the Ninja Turtles films get lighter and more childish with each successive installment. Ninja Turtles III is the series nadir because it’s aimed solely at toddlers, and not those who had been old enough to watch and enjoy the previous films. Compounding matters, the film’s plot is confusing, resulting in a ton painful exposition aimed directly at 5-year-olds. If the first film was aimed at 8-year-olds, they’d be 11 upon the 3rd film’s release. Instead of aiming the film at its established fan base, the film targets the sensibilities of a 5-year-old. A time travel sequel that expects its audience to have matured mentally negative-six years. It’s the kind of movie that could insult the intelligence of a 10-year-old.
Since the film is targeted at a much younger crowd than before, the production skimped on its effects. Where the first two Ninja Turtles films had creature effects by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, this time they’re created by the All Effects Company. While All Effects have made some excellent creature work in other films, here their work looks noticeably worse than previous films. In a number of scenes, the seam between the turtles’ masks and costumes are distractingly present. A static Splinter looks as if it were just a removed from a local Chuck E. Cheese animatronic show.
Like everything else in the film, the humor is targeted at toddlers. Jokes range from odd references to pizza, pop culture references, and really tired culture clash-type humor. One instance where Casey Jones tries to play hockey with a group of Japanese time travelers goes on forever. The joke is simply that Japanese people think hockey is about fighting. The cultural references are very period specific. “Kurt Russell, eat your heart out,” Michelangelo says after rescuing a child from a fire, a lazy reference to Russell’s firefighter film, Backdraft. Probably the most awkward joke/reference is when two turtles see April O’Neil’s legs and say, “Schwing!” I mean, who doesn’t want our teenage mutant ninja turtles to make erection jokes from Wayne’s World? “Is your shell hard or are you just happy to see me?” is how I imagine some deleted dialogue went.
Writer-director Stuart Gillard gets the absolute least from everything. You’d think that most filmmakers would use the setting of Feudal Japan to sneak in some glimpses of Akira Kurosawa, the master of samurai filmmaking, but no. Even with decent actors like Elias Koteas and Stuart Wilson, Gillard is only able to coax the broad schlocky performances. Paige Turco may be a good actress, but here as April O’Neil she’s wretched, full of exaggerated expressions and stilted readings. Not even the voice actors providing the voices for the turtles, including Corey Feldman as Donatello, avail themselves well. Their voices are just grating, making you openly root for the turtles’ demise. I had turtle soup once. It was really good. Those guys could feed an entire village. But Gillard does sneak in a line about the British trading with Japan in the 16th Century, which easily explains why an entire village in early 17th Century Japan speaks perfect English.
The film ends as it begins – with a choreographed turtle dance. It’s not hard to see how this film ended the Ninja Turtles film franchise, a franchise still trying to regain its footing. There are works, like classic Looney Tunes, that appeal to both older and younger, and are passed down generations because of their wit and artistry. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is not one of those works. It’s not a film you’d watch with someone younger, which you both could enjoy for entirely different reasons. This the movie you put on for some brat to distract them while you do something else. Because, simply, you’re too old for this shit.